Hail the hellbender
As we get ready to reopen the Georgia eXtremes building at Scaly Slimy Spectacular, you may notice a new animal face or two. One special guy is the eastern hellbender (Cryptobranchus alleganiensis). These guys range from southern New York to northern Georgia. They are known by many names, including “mud devil,” “snot otter,” “lasagna lizard,” and “Allegheny alligator” – it is thought the name “hellbender” comes from people believing they were creatures of the underworld bent on returning. Although some of those names may infer that hellbenders are scary creatures, they really aren’t. They are rather shy, nocturnal, fully aquatic salamanders that spend the majority of their time squeezed up under large river rocks, mostly coming out to hunt crayfish.
Hellbenders are in the Cryptobranchidae family – a group of fully aquatic giant salamanders. The largest species in this family are the Chinese giant salamanders – growing over 50 pounds and over 1.5 meters in length. You’re probably wondering why I didn’t open with that! The hellbender is a giant salamander … but not as giant as its cousins the Chinese or Japanese giant salamanders. Hellbenders reach sizes up to 29 inches long, but generally average 12 to 15 inches in length and weigh nearly 4 pounds.
Hellbenders have thick, wrinkly skin flaps (think about that nickname lasagna lizard) along the sides of their bodies that will move in the water current, allowing them to take in more oxygen from the water. Like many amphibians, hellbenders breathe through their skin – even though they have surprisingly large lungs (given that they don’t really use them). They are also covered in a slimy, slippery coating (now think about that other nickname snot otter) that makes them very difficult to grab hold of and also doesn’t taste very good. This helps to protect them from predators and the rough, rocky stream bottoms they walk around on. Just about everything about a hellbender’s appearance and body makes them perfectly adapted for the fast-moving streams and riverbeds they tend to call home – and it’s been that way for a very long time. Relatives of hellbenders can be found in the fossil record dating back more than 160 million years ago!
So, once Georgia eXtremes has been reopened, I hope you come on by and see if you can spot our hellbender hiding up underneath his rock home.
Keeper, Herpetology Team
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