U.S. Giant Salamanders Slipping Away: Inside the Fight to Save the Hellbender

U.S. Giant Salamanders Slipping Away: Inside the Fight to Save the Hellbender

The U.S. giant salamander is becoming increasingly rare. Changing ecosystems and disease are threatening these amphibians.


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Biology, Ecology


Giant Salamander

A hellbender salamander (Cryptobranchus alleganiensis). These amphibians can grow up to just over half meter in length.

Photograph by Paul Zahl
A hellbender salamander (Cryptobranchus alleganiensis). These amphibians can grow up to just over half meter in length.
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Snot otters. Allegheny alligators. Mud devils. These are three amusing nicknames for the hellbender. It's the largest salamander in North America. Hellbenders can reach lengths of .6 meters (two feet) and weigh up to 1.8 kilograms (four pounds).

Hellbenders and other salamanders are amphibians, like frogs. Amphibians can breathe both on land and in water. Hellbenders prefer the water in streams, though. These salamanders mostly move around at night. Crayfish are their main food.

The color of hellbenders helps them blend into stream bottoms. They are mostly gray or brown. They can easily be mistaken for big rocks. Under big rocks is the best place to find them.

Hellbenders might be big, but they are disappearing. Their population has been shrinking for the last 40 years. Wildlife biologists have grown more concerned. They are working to protect hellbenders from disappearing forever.

Hellbender Habitat

Hellbenders breathe through their skin. Because of that, they need clean, cold water to live in. Dirty or polluted streams harm them. Unfortunately, their habitat has grown dirtier. Dirt from farms has been washing into where they live. Harmful chemicals are also getting into the water.

Thomas Floyd is a wildlife biologist in Georgia. His state has a healthy population of hellbenders. Floyd's research team monitors them. His team searches under rocks. They find the giant salamanders and check their health.

Floyd said healthy forests protect streams. The trees and plants prevent dirt and chemicals from washing into the water. Healthy streams mean healthy hellbenders.

Hellbenders in New York

Hellbenders in New York aren't doing as well. Their population has dropped. Streams near the Allegheny River are mainly where they live now.

Biologists there are trying to increase the numbers of these unique salamanders. They are raising baby hellbenders. Once the babies get big enough, they are released into the wild. The bigger they are, the better chance they have to survive. Small hellbenders are more easily caught by predators.

Will Miller is a wildlife officer in New York. He works for the Seneca Nation Fish and Wildlife. The Seneca Nation is a Native American nation in New York.

The Seneca Nation originally got interested in hellbenders because of a cultural connection, Miller said. Seneca tribe historians say some of the Nation's stories are about the hellbender.

Public support for saving hellbenders has given Miller hope. He and his co-workers go to local schools. They teach students about these giant salamanders.

Their efforts have been rewarded. Some people sent Miller a picture of a hellbender. They had caught it while fishing. They released it once they realized what it was.

Media Credits

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Tyson Brown, National Geographic Society
Jane J. Lee, National Geographic
Production Managers
Gina Borgia, National Geographic Society
Jeanna Sullivan, National Geographic Society
Program Specialists
Sarah Appleton, National Geographic Society, National Geographic Society
Margot Willis, National Geographic Society
André Gabrielli, National Geographic Society
Last Updated

October 19, 2023

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