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.
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. Our four SEHCI Private Lands Biologists stationed across the Southeast work directly with agricultural landowners in the highest priority watersheds to provide education about hellbenders and their habitats, help landowners develop and implement best management practices, and connect them with financial resources to support their conservation efforts. We also provide entertaining and educational outreach events for both agricultural and residential landowners to demonstrate how individual actions to protect and improve water quality can provide win-win outcomes for both hellbenders and communities.
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.
Endangered Species Act
IUCN Red List
The Missouri Distinct Population Segment of the eastern hellbender is listed as endangered; all other populations not listed.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Hellbenders eat mostly crayfish, but will occasionally also eat insects, small fish, tadpoles, frogs, water snakes or even other salamanders.