The Largest Aquatic Salamander in the United States
This very odd looking salamander can grow to lengths of 29 inches, making it the largest aquatic salamander in the United States. The hellbender is nocturnal, spending most of its day under rocks on the bottom of cold, fast moving streams and rivers after spending the night eating small fish, toads, tadpoles or water snakes. Although hellbenders have lungs, they make very little use of them, absorbing most of the oxygen they need through their skin. This is why clean, fresh water is so important to their survival.
Some populations of hellbenders remain relatively healthy, but other populations such as the Ozark hellbender have experienced drastic declines in the 1980s and 90s and are endangered. In addition to pollution, warming waters, and siltation of streams and rivers, the hellbenders are facing infection from “chytrid fungus” which is fatal to a number of amphibians throughout the world.
Conservation in Action
Because of the growing decline in hellbender populations, captive breeding and headstart programs have been recommended. Zoos in the current range of the hellbender have responded. The St. Louis Zoo started the Ron Goellner Center for Hellbender Conservation, and the National Zoo, Toledo Zoo, Nashville Zoo, and all three Zoos in Indiana have developed cooperative hellbender conservation and science programs.