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Question: I've only seen big Hellbenders, do small ones look like salamanders?
Hellbenders are just plain cool and if you've seen one in the wild, you're lucky (at least I think so). A hellbender is a big, beady eyed, wrinkled salamander, a type of amphibian that prefers to hide under large rocks in streams and rivers. Unfortunately, to many people the hellbender is ugly and even scary, but they are harmless. Their wrinkles help them breath oxygen through their skin, although they do have lungs. Hellbenders are North America's one truly giant salamander and grow up to 29 inches long (over two feet!) and can live over twenty years. The only other salamanders that top them are the endangered Chinese and Japanese giant salamanders which grow up to five feet long.
Hellbenders, especially the Ozark subspecies, should be classified as federally endangered, as they seem to be disappearing throughout their range which follows the Appalachian mountain chain, but they are mysterious and can be hard to study. Some states do list them as endangered. Here, in New York, they are a species of special concern as hellbenders are now known to inhabit only two rivers. In many areas, such as the Susquehanna River, hellbenders are not reproducing well which contributes to the scarcity of small ones.
Little hellbenders are hard to find even if a population is healthy. As eggs, their father guards them, but once hatched, baby hellbenders are very vulnerable to predators and even other hellbenders. During their first few years of existence hellbenders have gills and may be mistaken for their cousin, the mudpuppy. Mudpuppies are another large aquatic salamander that retains their gills into adulthood, but hellbenders lose them when they reach five to seven inches in length. Then, they are really just small versions of the adults.
Young hellbenders live in different habitat than adults, as they prefer fast flowing, rocky, riffles. They may take up to seven years to reach reproductive adulthood and big enough to move into an adult habitat. Hellbenders of any age face many external threats. As is the case with most wildlife, habitat alteration is the biggest threat to hellbenders. Siltation (runoff soil erosion) and dams lower habitat quality for hellbenders and their prey.
Like all amphibians, hellbenders are very vulnerable to pollution. Over collection for the pet trade has reduced many populations. Unfortunately, their name and appearance generate fear in some people. Some fishermen still kill hellbenders thinking that they are venomous or deplete fish populations. In reality, hellbenders are harmless, eat mostly crayfish and invertebrates, and are actually good indicators of the health of a stream or river. We all need healthy streams, rivers, and water supplies. If we help hellbenders, we help ourselves.
You can see the largest salamanders in person by stopping by The Binghamton Zoo at Ross Park where a Hellbender exhibit is set up in the Wonder of Nature building.
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