Ugly, Scary and Completely Harmless

By Scott Shalaway
EASTERN hellbenders, the largest salamanders in North America, spend most of their daylight hours under large flat rocks on rocky stream bottoms.

Here’s a question for the anglers in the family: Have you ever hooked a long, slimy, four-legged creature while fishing on a clear, cool, cobble-bottomed stream or river?

If so, it was probably an eastern hellbender, the largest salamander in North America.

Hellbenders spend most of their daylight hours under large flat rocks on rocky stream bottoms. At night they emerge to dine on crayfish (about 90 percent of their diet) and other small aquatic creatures. This is when anglers are most likely to hook a hellbender. They are completely harmless, so remove the hook immediately and release the hellbender.

Identification is easy. Hellbenders measure 17 inches (males) to 21 inches (females), and the body seems wrapped in flabby folds of skin. The eyes are small, beady, and positioned on top of the head. Though larval hellbenders have conspicuous external gills, adults retain only a pair of gill slits on the sides of the head. Hellbenders transform from the larval form to adult at 18 to 24 months of age, but they don’t breed until they are five or six years old.

Mudpuppies or waterdogs are the only species that might be confused with hellbenders, but they are typically less than 12 inches long, and adults retain conspicuous external gills.

In September, a male scoops a shallow nest depression under a large flat rock on the stream bed and when a female enters, she lays up to 400 eggs in long, bead-like strands. The male fertilizes the eggs as the female releases them, then he chases the female away and tends to the nest. The eggs hatch in 60 to 87 days.

Hellbender populations face many challenges. They are seldom seen, they reproduce slowly, and they face habitat deterioration due to chemical pollution, acid mine drainage and siltation from mining, logging and road construction. Field research is essential to determine the population status and distribution of the species.

Joe Greathouse, curator of animals at Oglebay’s Good Zoo in Wheeling, WV, has been studying and conducting a census of hellbenders in West Virginia since 2005. He has learned that they don’t wander far from home and seem unable to cross stretches of silty stream bottoms. Perhaps with no rocks to hide under, they are simply easy prey for predators. Greathouse values input from anglers.

“Since word of this study got out, I’ve received many calls from fishermen,” he said. “If anyone sees or catches a hellbender anywhere in West Virginia, Ohio or Pennsylvania, I’d like to hear about it.” –Pittsburgh Post Gazette