North Carolina is home to at least 48 species of salamanders, and the mountain counties are the most productive with at least 35 species. And among those 35 species is the hellbender (Cryptobranchus alleganiensis), one of only three giant salamanders found in the world—the other two are the Chinese Giant Salamander and Japanese Giant Salamander. The hellbender’s one of the largest salamanders found in the United States. Only the amphiuma, a salamander shaped like an eel, is longer.
According to a Missouri state herpetologist, Jeff Briggler, early settlers thought the hellbender looked like a creature from hell, where it was “bent” on returning, which is how this salamander got its name. In Western North Carolina hellbenders are also called ‘water dog,’ ‘devildog’ or ‘Alleghany alligator.’
During the Middle Ages, people believed salamanders were born from fire, because they observed salamanders scurrying out of damp logs burned for fuel. Consequently, in some languages, the word salamander means “fire lizard.” Leonardo da Vinci wrote that the salamander “has no digestive organs, and gets no food but from the fire, in which it constantly renews its scaly skin.”
Other early myths about salamanders claimed their saliva destroyed human hair. While salamanders probably did scurry out of damp logs back in the day, they no doubt did so to escape the fire, not to be born from it. Further, salamanders do not lack digestive organs, do not have scales, and do not have saliva that ruins human hair.
Hellbenders are not venomous, though their skin secretions are somewhat toxic (don’t touch your eyes after handling one!). They will bite, but only if they are really provoked. A common myth is that hellbenders will ‘ruin’ good fishing streams by eating all the fish. This couldn’t be farther from the truth. In fact, if you see hellbenders in a stream, this is an excellent indication that the water quality is still good.
They feed almost entirely on crayfish, but will also eat small fish, invertebrates, and other hellbenders. The hellbender is a nocturnal animal with poor vision; consequently it relies on touch and smell to catch food. They will scavenge for anything that smells good — this is why they are often caught on fishing lines.
The hellbender’s voracious appetite for crayfish also means that they are very important for keeping a stream’s food chain balanced, and this is good for fish and the entire ecosystem.
Mature hellbenders breathe entirely through their skin. Young hellbenders are born with gills. Gill slits located at the base of the throat replace the gills when the young reach 1 1⁄2 years. The young hellbender is then able to absorb oxygen through its skin.
Because hellbenders rely on the thousands of capillaries found in the fleshy folds of skin along their body and legs to get oxygen from the water, they spend nearly all of their time in fast-moving water where dissolved oxygen is plentiful.
In North Carolina, the hellbender can be found in mountain streams that drain toward the Ohio and Tennessee River systems. Streams noted for their hellbender populations include New River, Watauga River, South Toe River, Mills River and Davidson River.
The oldest known hellbender in captivity was 29 years and individuals in the wild likely live that long or longer. Because they live so long, the removal of adults from the wild can cause populations to dwindle.
North Carolina is fortunate that national forests protect many of the hellbender’s mountain watersheds, yet development in some mountain watersheds threatens its habitat. Stream conditions have been detrimentally impacted by increased urbanization, poor agricultural and forestry practices, and road-building. As these streams are disturbed, sediment builds up and smothers the rocks under which the hellbenders live.
The hellbender’s habitat has also been impacted as more rivers have been dammed. Damming of rivers has converted many of the free-flowing waterways into slow moving lakes no longer suitable for species like the hellbender.
The N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission has designated the hellbender as a species of Special Concern. This designation prohibits the taking and sale of hellbenders.