The hellbender was once widespread in 15 states but has been eliminated from much of its historic range. The animal still lives from southern New York to northern Georgia and from the central Appalachians westward to Missouri. Remaining populations are concentrated in the Ohio River watershed, the Tennessee and Kanawha River watersheds (both major tributaries to the Ohio River), and the Susquehanna River watershed. There’s also a population in Missouri.
Hellbenders are a completely aquatic species, commonly found in cool, highly oxygenated, perennial streams. Boulders, especially large, flat rocks, serve as nest rocks and provide shelter and cover, and are the most important indicator of adult hellbender habitat. Hellbenders breathe through their skin, but also have lungs they can use in some conditions.
Hellbenders are primarily nocturnal and move by walking on stream bottoms, but can swim short distances to avoid predators. Hellbender lifespan is estimated to be at least 25-30 years and may be closer to 50.
Known by colorful names like “devil dog,” “snot otter,” “Allegheny river monster,” “grampus” and “old lasagna sides,” the eastern hellbender’s nicknames reference the loose, frilly skin along its sides and its mucus-like covering, which is believed to provide protection from abrasion and parasites and may have antibiotic properties.
The Center for Biological Diversity petitioned to protect the eastern hellbender under the Endangered Species Act in 2010. The October 2017 “not warranted” finding came after two legal agreements the Center entered into with the Fish and Wildlife Service in 2011 and 2013 to expedite protections.
On March 4th, 2021 Lower Susquehanna Riverkeeper and other conservation groups filed a formal notice of intent today to sue the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service over its decision in April 2019 to deny Endangered Species Act protection to eastern hellbenders. These river-dwelling salamanders can grow longer than 2 feet and live in clear, fast-flowing mountain streams in 15 southeastern, midwestern and northeastern states. They have now been eliminated from much of their historic range.
Nearly 80% of hellbender populations have already been lost or are in decline due to agricultural and industrial water pollution, habitat destruction, sedimentation, warming waters, dams and other impoundments, and climate change. While acknowledging that those threats will likely intensify, the Service nonetheless found, in April 2019, that the hellbender’s protection under the Endangered Species Act is not warranted.
On July 1st, 2021 parties filed a lawsuit challenging a decision made by the Trump administration to deny Endangered Species Act protection to eastern hellbenders. “Hellbenders need our help now. We must protect their aquatic habitats from erosion, sedimentation and other threats these helpless amphibians continuously face,” said Ted Evgeniadis, the Lower Susquehanna riverkeeper. “It’s been proven through research and scientific data that hellbenders require Endangered Species Act protection. The Trump administration’s denial of that protection was arbitrary and our complaint is necessary to defend against further decimation of the greatest indicator species we have for water quality.”
Hellbenders in the Media:
PRESS RELEASE: Legal Victory Puts Hellbender Back on Track for Endangered Species Protection 09/6/23
Chesapeake Bay Magazine: Susquehanna Groups to Sue Fish & Wildlife Service Over Hellbender Protection 03/08/2021
The Center for Biological Diversity: Lawsuit Launched to Overturn Denial of Endangered Species Protection for Eastern Hellbenders 03/04/2021