What has been on Earth since the dinosaurs? Grows over 2 feet long? Lives in Eastern United States streams and rivers and is so ugly, it is hard not to love? Hellbenders, of course! What the heck is a hellbender you might ask? Well, here are some cool hellbender facts.
Also called snot otters, they are North America’s largest aquatic salamander and live as far north as New York and as far south as Alabama. In all 16 states in which they are found, hellbenders are listed as threatened or endangered. But where you see one, you know the stream is healthy. They require extremely clean, fast-moving water in order to thrive.
Some other cool hellbender facts: they have 4 stubby legs with 4 toes on the front ones and 5 toes on the back. They breathe through their skin, not their lungs. The males protect the nest of eggs for over two months until they hatch. And sometimes they eat the eggs which is not so cool.
OUR EXPERIENCE WITH HELLBENDERS
We fell in love with hellbenders upon first seeing them in a video, “The Last Dragons, Protecting Appalachians Hellbenders” in early 2016. Dale was so inspired, he carved a stone sculpture of a hellbender in its rock house, called “Hellbenders Rock” which will be installed in the NC Zoo in May 2018 in a new hellbender exhibit. And we were thrilled to see a live one at both the WNC Nature Center in Asheville, NC and the NC Zoo. Several organizations are currently trying to protect and breed them for release into the wild which is very exciting. And stand by to learn more about hellbender nest boxes, as we learn about this artificial habitat being used to give a boost to hellbenders.
WHAT WE CAN DO
Hellbender populations have declined dramatically over the last few decades. The biggest threat to hellbenders is the loss of habitat through the siltation of the streams in which they live and water contamination. Silt smothers not only the hellbenders but their prey (crayfish, minnows, and insects), entombs their eggs, and fills up the holes in which they live.
Considering they breathe through their skin, any toxins in the water from chemical/pesticide runoff or untreated sewage can be deadly. When you move stones in a stream, to stack rocks, for example, you may be destroying the hellbender’s house. Wreck their house (read our blog Hellbender Homewrecker, Not Me!) and you may be killing the hellbender. Think about it. If you lived in the same house for up to 30 years and suddenly your house was destroyed… And hellbenders often under the same rock for years. Releasing a hellbender if hooked while fishing will also help protect them.
Learn More about Hellbenders
- NC Zoo
- WNC Nature Center
- N.Y. Times Article: A Homecoming for Hellbenders
- National Geographic Article: US Giant Salamanders Slipping Away: Inside the Fight to Save the Hellbender
- Defenders of Wildlife Blog: Swimming with Giants