January 5, 2014
The constellation of nicknames for the Eastern hellbender — snot otter, devil dog and Allegheny alligator — shows that it is an odd beast indeed.
An old hellbender can exceed 2 feet in length and weigh 3 pounds. That dwarfs most of Ohio’s 23 other salamander species.
Hellbenders live up to their name. They look as if the Marvel Comics superhero the Thing has come to life in the form of an amphibian.
A hellbender resembles the rocks in which it lives. Small, piggish eyes cap a seemingly shapeless head fronted with an exceptionally large mouth. The amorphous body blends seamlessly between head, middle and tail. The creature is wrinkled like a lasagna noodle, and small misshapen feet seem to have been tacked on as an afterthought.
These salamanders are tough hombres. They live in a world of extremes. Hellbenders frequent rough, rocky streams that are prone to severe seasonal flooding, summertime drought, brutal ice scouring and water temperatures that can vary by 50 degrees or more.
People seldom see hellbenders, which hide under huge rock slabs during the day and emerge to hunt at night. Their favored prey is crayfish.
Hellbenders live throughout much of the Appalachian Mountains and Ohio River Valley but have become rare in many areas. The creatures can handle whatever Mother Nature throws at them, but they have met their match in man. Once, hellbenders were probably found in all of the major Ohio River drainages in Ohio. Today, they are listed as endangered and survive in only a handful of locales.
Silt from farm fields, chemical pollution, acid runoff from mines and other unnatural factors have done in hellbenders. On the plus side, some ancestral streams have experienced recent water-quality improvements, and efforts are afoot to re-establish hellbenders.
The Ohio Division of Wildlife, the Wilds, and the Columbus and Toledo zoos have orchestrated a recovery program. Hellbenders are reared from the egg and then turned over to an innovative program sponsored by the Marion Correctional Institution. Prisoners raise the salamanders to a size suitable for returning to the wild.
Let’s hope hellbenders flourish. They’re an important part of Ohio’s natural heritage, dating back to the Jurassic Period and dinosaurs. Their presence speaks of healthy streams and good water quality.
Naturalist Jim McCormac writes a column for The Dispatch on the first and third Sundays of the month. He also writes about nature at www.jim mccormac.blogspot.com.