Skip to main content

Hellbenders trying to hang on

Hellbenders trying to hang on

Columbus Dispatch
January 5, 2014

Jim McCormac

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


Lisa Rainsong said…
Excellent article! I suppose many people would see the photo and think, "why should I care about THAT! But your article does a great job of explaining why it does indeed matter abnd just how tough and how cool they are. We are responsible the their endangerment, and we are for correcting our mistakes wherever we can. Great photo, too - and I hope I get a chance to see one of these fabulous creatures!

Popular posts from this blog

The Pinching Beetle, a rather brutish looking bug

The world is awash in beetles, and they come in all shapes and sizes. Few of them can match the intimidation factor of a Pinching Beetle, Lucanus capreolus, though. Those formidable looking mandibles look like they could slice off a finger.

Today was one of those coolly diverse days. I started off down in Fayette County, visiting the farm of a friend. He has restored about 25 acres of wetlands, and the response by the animal community has been nothing short of phenomenal. Blizzards of dragonflies of many species, amphibians galore, and nesting Blue-winged Teal, Pied-billed Grebe, and Sora. Among MANY other things. And all in a short two years. Add water and they will come.

Then, working my way home, I ducked into a Madison County cemetery that has a thriving population of Thirteen-lined Ground Squirrels, and shot images of our native prairie dog. Then, I stopped at a spot along Little Darby Creek, waded on in, and procured some pretty nice shots of various stream bluets and dancers. …

Calliope Hummingbird in central Ohio!

A hatch-year male Calliope Hummingbird strikes a pose. Small but tough, the hummingbird was feeding actively yesterday in 39 F temperatures. It frequents feeders and gardens at a home in Delaware County, Ohio, about a half-hour north of Columbus.

Fortunately, the wayward hummer appeared at the home of Tania and Corey Perry. Tania is a birder, and knew right away that the hummingbird was something special. For a while, the identification was up in the air, which isn't surprising. The Calliope Hummingbird used to be placed in its own genus, Stellula, but has recently been submerged into the genus Selasphorus, which includes Allen's, Broad-tailed, and Rufous hummingbirds. The latter two, especially, are quite similar to the Calliope in subadult plumage. Rufous is the default "vagrant" hummingbird here, with dozens of records and birds turning up annually. There is but one Ohio record of Allen's Hummingbird, from late fall/early winter 2009. Ditto the Calliope Hummi…

Snowy owl photography tactics - and things NOT to do

A gorgeous juvenile female snowy owl briefly catches your narrator with its piercing gaze. It's doing its Linda Blair/Exorcist trick - twisting its head 180 degrees to look straight behind. Owls have 14 neck vertebrae - double our number - which allows them such flexibility.

These visitors from the high arctic have irrupted big time into Ohio and adjacent regions, with new birds coming to light nearly every day. Probably 80 or so have thus far been reported in the state, and some of them have stuck around favored spots and become local celebrities.

I went to visit one of these birds this morning - the animal above, which was found last Friday by Doug Overacker and Julie Karlson at C.J. Brown Reservoir near Springfield. In the four days since its discovery, many people have visited as is nearly always the case when one of these white wonders appears near a large population center or is otherwise very accessible.

And as is always the case, people want to photograph the owls. And th…