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Hellbenders Rock

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Published on Nov 20, 2013

We love hellbenders. But they're not the cuddliest of species, with their slimy bodies that look like the 2-foot-long lovechild of phlegm and a rock. Actually these critters -- also called (by people not on the Center's staff) "devil dogs" and "snot otters" -- are pretty much a PR nightmare for anyone trying to fight off their extinction due to water pollution and dams. The rallying cry "Save the Snot Otter" doesn't always go over well.

Happily for the hellbender, a band from St. Louis is now doing this salamander justice through song. They may yet make a rock 'n' roll legend out of North America's largest amphibian.

We think there are few things more rockin' than raising a little hellbender.

NATURAL HISTORY

HELLBENDER } Cryptobranchus alleganiensis
FAMILY: Cryptobranchidae

DESCRIPTION: Hellbenders are considered to be living fossils because they have changed so little over time. They are large, stout-bodied, fully-aquatic salamanders that grow to be two feet long with brown, grey or black skin with lighter markings. Hellbenders have flattened bodies and heads that allow them to cling to the river bottom, as well as a rough pad on their toes for traction on slick rocks. They have paddle-like tails for swimming, and numerous folds of fleshy skin for oxygen absorption. Their eyes are small, without lids, and their skin secretes toxic slime to ward off predators.

HABITAT: This salamander occurs in rocky, clear creeks and rivers, usually where there are large shelter rocks. It generally avoids water warmer than 68 degrees Fahrenheit. Males prepare nests and attend eggs beneath large, flat rocks or submerged logs.

RANGE: This species is found in Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Maryland, Missouri, Mississippi, North Carolina, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia. The Ozark subspecies is found only in southern Missouri and northern Arkansas.

MIGRATION: The hellbender does not migrate.

BREEDING: Hellbender breeding is aquatic. Males may move short distances within their home ranges to brooding sites. The breeding season is variable but occurs mainly in September and October; a male prepares a nest by moving gravel to create a saucer-shaped depression, then depositing 200-400 eggs in the depression. The male fertilizes the eggs and guards the nests until the young are about three weeks old.

LIFE CYCLE: Newly hatched larvae are approximately 1.2 inches long. Development is rapid, and hatchlings double their size in the first year. Larvae normally lose their external gills in the second summer after hatching. Hellbenders reach sexual maturity at five to six years and may live as long as 30 years.

FEEDING: Crayfish are the most important food items for hellbenders, but the salamanders' diet also includes fish, insects, earthworms, snails, tadpoles, fish eggs, other hellbenders and other hellbenders' eggs.

THREATS: This species is mainly threatened by poor water quality, unsustainable collection for the pet trade and scientific purposes, persecution by anglers, disease caused by chytrid fungus, stocking of predatory fish and loss of genetic diversity.

POPULATION TREND: The hellbender is declining throughout its range. The Ozark hellbender in southern Missouri and northern Arkansas is in especially alarming decline.

Action timeline

May 4, 2004 -- The Center petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to list 225 candidate species, including the Ozark hellbender.

April 20, 2010 -- The Center petitioned to list 404 aquatic, riparian and wetland species in the southeastern United States as threatened or endangered, including the hellbender.

September 8, 2010 -- The Service issued a proposed rule to list the Ozark hellbender as endangered but refused to designate critical habitat.

November 8, 2010 -- The Center filed comments with the Fish and Wildlife Service urging the Service to designate critical habitat for the Ozark hellbender.

July 12, 2011 -- The Center reached a landmark agreement with the Fish and Wildlife Service compelling the agency to move forward in the protection process for 757 species, including the Ozark and eastern hellbenders.

October 5, 2011 -- The Service issued a final rule listing the Ozark hellbender as an endangered species under the Endangered Species Act as part of our 757 species agreement.

January 31, 2013 -- The Center and the Missouri Coalition for the Environment filed a formal notice of intent to sue the U.S. Forest Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service over the agencies' failure to protect the Ozark hellbender, Hine's emerald dragonfly, Tumbling Creek cavesnail and two endangered mussels on Missouri's Mark Twain National Forest, where logging, road use and other activities are polluting waterways.

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