Saturday, September 02, 2006

Like a Salamander Outta Hell

There has to be a story behind the eastern hellbender's name. It sounds like Dante on a drug trip, a motorcycle gang, or a punk metal band1 (the Ozark Hellbenders would perform cover songs heavily involving banjos). If anyone has the actual etymology behind the name, I'd be glad to hear it.

Image from Ohio Department of Natural Resources
Image from Ohio Department of Natural Resources
Despite having an ugly sounding name, the eastern hellbender, Cryptobranchus alleganiensis, is, in fact, not pretty. As an adult, they can achieve lengths of 11 to 20 inches. Folds of skin hang from their sides, through which they breathe. The hellbenders have lungs, but those are used only for buoyancy. Their heads are flat, with tiny, beady eyes. Their habitat exists under rocks and debris in clear, fast-moving streams.

These giant salamanders hunt crayfish, small fish, and large insects, searching mainly using lateral lines and then sucking in prey, a method not shared by any other adult salamander. Also seperating them from other salamanders is the fact that the hellbender practices external fertilization, where the female will drop the eggs and then allow the male to fertilize them. After this, the male will guard the eggs for two to three months until they hatch.

Hellbenders are endangered in Ohio, Maryland, Illinois, and Indiana, threatened in Alabama, and a species of concern in New York. Pollution is a major problem facing eastern hellbenders, and for that matter, many amphibians. This is due to their ability to breathe through their skin. Any chemical with a higher concentration in the water than their body is drawn in, be it oxygen, nitrogen, or agricultural runoff. Damming rivers cause silt to clog the hellbender's nesting site (remember the lungfish?). The bad rap that the hellbender gets also doesn't help, as there are many legends of the salamanders sliming fishers' nets or poisoning river water. Photos of herpetologists, gloveless, holding it, might help dispel these myths. So if you happen to be creeking in the eastern Midwest (or western East), and see a gigantic salamander, consider yourself lucky to be in the presence of the largest salamander around.

1They are a band! That's what I get for looking too far on the internet for hellbender research. Though, they look more indie than punk metal.

1 comment:

Raging Wombat said...

Hellbender! That's great - I'll be using it on my site.

You and I cover a lot of the same material. Check out my blog at One of my readers alerted me to your presence today. I'll be sure to link to your site.

Let me know if you ever want to collaborate at all. I have found that some ugly endangered (or at least threatened) animals include california condors, galapagos tortoises and marine iguanas (there are some great quotes from Darwin on them), pygmy hippos, sloths, tasmanian devils, and even the great apes (if caught in the right pose).

Keep up the good work!