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iStock Photgraphy/ Charles d’Orbigny’s ‘Dictionanaire Universal d’Histoire Naturelle’ 1839-1849. Steel engraving.
The hellbender can get as large as two and a half feet long. To see a video of this creature in its natural environment, visit BlueRidgeCountry.com/Hellbender.
A Helluva Salamander. Ranging from yellowish brown to gray or black, this aquatic creature is easily distinguished by its size – up to two and a half feet – as well as its large, flattened head; short, powerful legs; and fleshy skin folds that run down both sides of its body. Rough pads on its toes provide traction on slippery river rocks, and a rudder-like tail helps it swim.
Clear Channel. Found only in the eastern U.S., the hellbender inhabits the clean, swift-flowing streams of the Blue Ridge, where it finds plenty of oxygen and shelter beneath large, flat boulders and rocks. Most of them live in mountainous areas of West Virginia, Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee and Georgia and spend their daylight hours in natural or self-excavated dens at the bottom of the river.
Waterlogged. Hellbenders absorb most of their oxygen through the folds of their skin – not their lungs – and rarely leave the water.
Triple Threat. Since they prefer pristine rivers and streams, hellbenders serve as important clues to the health of the environment. Once distributed much farther west, the population has declined dramatically over the last century, and for several reasons, including pollution, soil runoff from agricultural practices and construction work, and dams that slow the movement of their watery habitats, making them no longer suitable for this particular species. Such manmade intrusions create toxins, reduce critical oxygen, and stir up sediment that smothers the hellbenders’ eggs and destroys their hiding places.
Old Timer. Hellbenders have been known to live 30 years in the wild and more than 50 in captivity. A high percentage of the young don’t fare so well, so removal of the adults can greatly impact the population.
Sensitive Salamander. This creature’s entire skin surface is covered with light-sensitive cells; those on its tail are especially helpful when hiding under rocks.
Food Chain. These nocturnal amphibians mostly eat crayfish but will also consume small fish, tadpoles, toads, water snakes, snails and even other hellbenders.
Baby Love. In two or three days, a female can lay up to 200 eggs. The male sometimes tempts more than one female to lay eggs in his nest, resulting in a long string of “beads” that intertwine to become a tangled mass. He then tends to the future babies by swaying side to side to stir up oxygen.