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Eastern Hellbender

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Description

The eastern hellbender (Cryptobranchus alleganiensis alleganiensis) is a large, stout-bodied, fully-aquatic salamander. Its color is usually brown with darker (or lighter) markings on the back, but can range from gray, to yellowish brown to almost black. The belly is lighter and sparsely spotted if at all. It has a large, flattened head with small and widely separated eyes. Fleshy skin folds run down both sides of the body ending at a keeled tail. The toes have a rough pad that allows for traction on slick river rocks. The entire skin surface is photosensitive, especially on the tail. Juveniles will lose their external gills when they reach between 4 and 5 inches long (approximately 18 months of age). Hellbenders are known to live to 30 years in the wild and over 50 years in captivity.

Similar Species

The Ozark hellbender (Cryptobranchus alleganiensis bishopi), is found in south-central Missouri and north-central Arkansas. The species has large, blotchlike markings covering its back and sides compared to smaller and few markings on the eastern hellbender. In portions of its range, eastern hellbenders can co-occur with the common mudpuppy (Necturus maculosus maculosus). Unlike adult hellbenders, adult mudpuppies have external gills. Mudpuppies reach a maximum length of 13 inches.

Distribution

Eastern hellbenders occupy the Susquehanna River drainage in southern New York and Pennsylvania, and large portions Missouri, Ohio, and Mississippi River drainages from western Pennsylvania, southern Ohio, extreme southern Indiana, most of West Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee, northern Alabama and Georgia, western North Carolina and Virginia. In Virginia, hellbenders are found in the mainstem and tributaries of the New River drainage and in the Clinch, Powell, and Holston River tributaries of the Upper Tennessee River (view a map).

Habitat

Eastern hellbenders are completely aquatic. They prefer clear, fast-flowing, well-oxygenated streams and rivers. The stream bottom should contain many large flat boulders, logs, and debris. In Virginia, hellbenders have been observed in streams as small as 5 meters and rivers over 100 meters wide.

Because of their preference for clean streams and rivers, hellbenders serve as indicators of stream health. The presence of young and adults is synonymous with good water quality.

Predators and Prey

Hellbender eating a Crayfish
  • Prey: Hellbenders feed primarily on crayfish. They have also been known to eat insects, snails, minnows and worms. Although fishermen have reported seeing hellbenders attracted to their creel at the end of their stringer, there is no evidence that hellbenders eat live trout or impact trout populations where they occur.
  • Predators: Very little is known about the predators of hellbenders. It is suspected that larva and juveniles could be prey to snapping turtles, watersnakes, and large predatory fish. Other than humans, adults probably have few predators.

Reproduction

In Virginia, mating occurs in late summer and early fall. During this time, the male, which is identified by swelling around the vent, excavates a shallow nest under flat rocks, debris, and in crevices. Once the nest is constructed, he actively guides pregnant females into it. The male then simultaneously fertilizes the eggs as she lays them. The spherical eggs, numbering from 150 to 450, are pale to light yellow, 1/4 inch in diameter, and enclosed by two gelatinous capsules. Once in contact with water, the eggs and coverings quickly triple in size. A thin strand of jelly about 1 to 2 inches in length attaches the eggs to one another, resembling a string of beads. These eventually intertwine to become a tangles mass in the nest.

Six-week old hellbender eggs several days before hatching

The female departs soon after mating, leaving the male to tend and aggressively defend his nest from predators and competitors alike. To provide oxygen to the eggs, he will sway side to side and ripple his skin folds. Incubation lasts 68-84 days, depending on environmental conditions and population characteristics. Hatchlings are 1.5 inches at birth, and with the exception of external gills, appear like miniature adults.

Threats

Water pollution and impoundments are major factors in the decline of hellbenders. Dams eliminate free-flowing sections of rivers and produce low oxygen conditions on the river bottom. Untreated sewage, sedimentation, and chemical runoff from lawns, fields, and parking lots all contribute to a reduction in their populations. Because respiration is through the skin, any toxic substance in the water can have significant adverse health effects. Removal of streamside vegetation and soil disturbance can cause sedimentation. Sedimentation affects hellbender survival by suffocating eggs, filling in hiding places of the young and killing invertebrates, such as crayfish they feed on.

Anglers using live bait such as crayfish and worms may sometimes catch a hellbender. They will often cut the line or kill the hellbender. Another reason people may kill them is the belief that they are poisonous. Hellbenders are non-poisonous and pose no threat to humans. Anybody catching one should cut the line as close to its mouth as possible or remove the hook with a pair of pliers and release the animal back into the water.

Status

The eastern hellbender is a Federal Species of Concern. In Virginia, it is listed as a species of special concern and as a Tier II species in the Virginia Wildlife Action Plan. Hellbenders cannot be sold, killed, or kept for personal use.

Nine month old juvenile hellbenders raised in captivity

Conservation and Research

Several efforts are underway in Virginia to conserve and manage hellbender populations. The Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries has produced an educational poster and this website in order to better inform the public about the plight of this species. In selected rivers in southwest Virginia, the Department is contracting researchers from Virginia Tech to assess hellbender populations in a variety of landscapes such as forested and agricultural. In this study, captured hellbenders are measured, weighed and implanted with a Passive Integrated Transponder (PIT) tag, which provides an identifying number unique to each specimen. Individuals that are recaptured are scanned to determine the presence of the PIT tag and reassessed. Techniques are being refined to cultivate hellbenders in captivity at the Department's Aquatic Wildlife Conservation Center near Marion, Virginia. Eggs that are abandoned or dislodged from nests are collected from nearby rivers and held in aquaria to determine their potential to hatch. To date, we have been able to hatch 60 hellbenders. Twenty juveniles have been released back to their natal streams. In the future, laboratory cultivation may be an effective tool to augment and reestablish the species back into their former range.

Contacts

To report a sighting of an Eastern Hellbender contact:
Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries
Phone: (804) 367-1000
Email: dgifweb@dgif.virginia.gov

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