Hellbender

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…another variety of fish, or whatever one may call it, resembling a small catfish, but having four short legs. It has a wide mouth and is about a foot and a half in length. The fins are short….
David Zeisberger, History of North American Indians, 1779-1780.

Despite its name, the hellbender (Cryptobranchus allegeniensis) is harmless. The largest amphibian in Ohio and all of North America, this salamander is totally aquatic for its entire life. They are found mainly in southeastern Ohio. Fossil remains of the hellbender date back to the Paleocene era.

There is nothing else in Ohio's waters that look quite like a hellbender. Its flat head and body are a dull gray or olive-brown with loose flaps of wrinkled skin on its sides. These skin flaps are richly supplied with blood capillaries and absorb most of the oxygen that the animal needs. And although it has lungs, there is a single gill slit on each side of its neck.

Between late August and September, the female hellbender will lay her 200-500 eggs in a nest made by the male under a large rock. Unlike other salamanders, the male fertilizes the eggs after they are laid. The male will then guard the nest until the young hatch in 2 - 3 months. Young hellbenders keep their gills for about a year and a half. Upon reaching maturity, it may be between 11.5 - 20 inches long. A rare individual may exceed 26 inches long, and live for 30 years

There are several myths about the hellbender, also known as the Devil Dog. These include stories of hellbenders "sliming" fishing lines, driving game fish away, and having a poisonous bite. None of these are true.

Hellbenders prefer a habitat of large, swift flowing streams of unpolluted waters with large rocks on the bottom for cover. They typically feed on crayfish, snails, and worms. With more and more industrialization, waterways are becoming polluted, and an increase in silt is burying rocks causing populations to decline. Currently the hellbender is listed as endangered and is monitored in the state of Ohio.

See Also