Sometimes known as the “devil dog” or “snot otter,” the eastern hellbender is North America’s largest salamander.

A fully aquatic species, hellbenders have inhabited the rivers of the eastern United States for the last 65 million years and are indicators of healthy streams. But without direct intervention, they could be headed for extinction.

Hellbenders require very specific habitat conditions to survive. In addition to clean, oxygen-rich water, they need access to prey, the ability to find mates, and large slab rocks with accessible crevices underneath to make homes and protect maturing eggs. Humans have dramatically changed and polluted the landscape, leading to declines in habitat and water quality that now threaten the hellbender’s survival. 

Defenders' Impact

Restoring habitat and recovering hellbender populations is a complex conservation challenge with no one simple solution, so Defenders of Wildlife launched the Southeastern Hellbender Conservation Initiative (SEHCI) in 2017.

SEHCI’s mission is to bring together science, education, community outreach and on-the-ground habitat restoration to advance hellbender population recovery on private lands in the Southeast. Through SEHCI, we focus our efforts on identifying priority habitats for restoration on private lands, educating landowners about hellbender conservation, and directly linking landowners with financial support and technical resources in order to make habitat restoration a win-win.

Threats

Unlike most species, hellbenders breathe through their skin. This makes them particularly vulnerable to sediment, pollutants and reduced oxygen levels in their environment. Nutrients and pesticides, runoff and erosion from agriculture and urban development degrade water quality; mining activities deposit heavy metals and toxins into nearby waterways; and dams and road crossings isolate populations.

Protection Status
Endangered Species Act
IUCN Red List
CITES
 Endangered
 Near Threatened
 Appendix III

The Missouri Distinct Population Segment of the eastern hellbender is listed as endangered; all other populations not listed.

What You Can Do

Practice responsible management of your land by not overusing pesticides and herbicides on residential lawns and reduce sedimentation by keeping a buffer of trees and native plants along waterways. Help dispel myths (like their slime is toxic or they compete with trout – both untrue) by sharing important information about their role as indicator species and ways to protect their habitat.

Facts
Latin Name
Cryptobranchus alleganiensis alleganiensis
Size
Hellbenders grow up to 30 inches long - they are the largest North American salamander and the third largest salamander in the world.
Lifespan
Hellbenders can live more than 30 years in the wild, but some estimates suggest they may live at least twice that long.
Range/Habitat

Southern New York to northern Georgia, including parts of Ohio, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, Missouri, Oklahoma and Kansas. Hellbenders need clear, cool , fast-flowing, well-oxygenated streams with healthy riparian buffers and plenty of cobble and large slab rocks for nesting.

Population

These unique and fascinating critters were historically widespread and abundant across 15 states, but surveys across their range have revealed that their numbers are falling fast, with about 78% of populations declining or already extirpated. The most stable remaining populations occur overwhelmingly on public lands.

Behavior

Generally nocturnal, hellbenders hang out under rocks in fast-moving water during the day and emerge at night to crawl along the river bottom with their grippy toe pads, hunting for crayfish and other prey items. They are thought to have relatively small home ranges of around 2,000 square meters . Hellbenders are typically solitary creatures, except during the nesting season, when males engage in ferocious battles over prime nesting habitat.

Reproduction

As a long-lived species, hellbenders don’t reach sexual maturity until five or six years of age. They reproduce late August to October . Females can produce 150-450 eggs each season and may lay eggs in multiple burrows with different males. Once the eggs are fertilized, the male will chase the female away and protect the eggs himself while they mature, warding off predators and fanning them with his tail to ensure they get enough oxygen.  The eggs hatch in 45 to 75 days. Young hellbenders look much like tiny adults, except with small frilly gills, which they lose at about 1.5 years of age.

Diet

Hellbenders eat mostly crayfish, but will occasionally also eat insects, small fish, tadpoles, frogs, water snakes or even other salamanders.

Read More About the Hellbender