Geographical Range Appalachian and Ozark Mountains of Eastern and Central United States
Habitat Spring-fed rivers
Scientific Name Cryptobranchus alleganiensis
Conservation Status Near threatened

Giant Salamander

Measuring about two feet in length, the hellbender (also known as a "snot otter"!) is one of the largest species of salamanders in the world. The hellbender's only close relatives are the giant salamanders of China and Japan.

Built for Water

Hellbenders are made for life in the water. They usually don't swim, but they walk on the bottom of the stream bed. Their slippery, flattened body moves easily through water, and their well-developed legs and oar-like tail help them walk against the current with little resistance.

These amphibians have natural camouflage. Their skin is brown with black splotches - perfect for blending in with their surroundings and avoiding potential predators.

Big Mouth

Crayfish is the food of choice for hellbenders, making up 90% of their diet. But hellbenders also feed on fish and other small aquatic (water-dwelling) animals - in fact, just about any living critter they can swallow whole.

Hellbenders hunt at night, so they depend on smell and touch to find their prey. Once a hellbender locates its quarry, it opens up its large mouth and - chomp! - grabs the unlucky animal with its strong jaws.

Stay-at-home Dads

In the fall, a male hellbender sets up a nesting site under a large stone and waits for a willing female to enter. After a brief courtship, the female deposits a clutch of eggs - between 200 and 500! After the male fertilizes the eggs, the female leaves the nest. It is the male who defends the nest for the next 45 to 60 days, until the eggs hatch into larvae (see amphibians.)

Going Solo

Except for the breeding season, hellbenders are solitary creatures, living alone. There are some reports that large numbers of hellbenders get together in deep water-holes during the winter, but these reports have yet to be confirmed.

Danger! Danger!

Hellbenders lead a dangerous life. Adults have to watch out for predators like river otters and raccoons. Young hellbenders face even more predators, including fish, reptiles, birds, mammals, and even larger hellbenders.

Helping Hellbenders

Hellbenders face many dangerous predators, but their biggest enemy isn't a wild animal - it's us. People have caused problems for hellbenders by altering and polluting their habitat. Since 1990, hellbenders that live in the Ozark Mountains of Missouri and Arkansas have suffered greatly: their numbers have declined by more than 70%.

Fortunately, conservation organizations (including the Saint Louis Zoo) are working hard to help hellbenders. These groups are working together to learn what's causing the hellbender's rapid population decline. This will help them come up with solutions to save this unique amphibian.

Fun Facts

  • Missouri is the only state that is home to both subspecies of hellbender, the eastern hellbender and the Ozark hellbender.
  • No one knows where the name hellbender comes from!
  • Hellbenders are often incorrectly called mudpuppies. Although both are amphibians, mudpuppies have large external feathery gills.

Class: Amphibia
Order: Caudata
Family: Cryptobranchidae