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Profile: Ozark Hellbender

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Profile: Ozark Hellbender

Endangered Ozark Hellbender

Photo by Ryan Thies

The Ozark hellbender (Cryptobranchus alleganiensis bishopi) is a completely aquatic salamander found in the rivers and streams of southern Missouri and northern Arkansas. Although it has lungs, the hellbender "breathes" by absorbing oxygen from the water through capillaries in its skin. Because it is nocturnal, spending daylight hours under large rocks and emerging to feed at night, it is seldom seen by even the most intrepid humans. If you are lucky enough to spot one, don't be intimidated by the creature's strange appearance and large size (the hellbender is much bigger than other salamander species of the region). This super-sized salamander is completely harmless to people, and it is in dire need of our protection.

Physical Characteristics:

  • Wide, flattened body shape that facilitates movement in fast-flowing streams
  • Dull green or brown color with dark, irregular blotches that help camouflage the hellbender among rocky stream beds
  • Thick, keeled tail
  • Small eyes located on the sides of the head
  • Short legs
  • Fleshy folds along the sides of the body that aid respiration

Size:

Adults can reach up to 2 feet long.

Habitat:

Hellbenders live in cool, clear, flowing streams and rivers with many large rocks that provide cover and nesting habitat. Clean gravel that is free of sedimentation is also critical to the survival of larval hellbenders which seek shelter in holes and spaces among the rocks.

Diet:

The hellbender's primary prey is crayfish, but they will also eat small fish, invertebrates, and other salamanders.

Reproduction:

  • Adults reach sexual maturity at 5 to 8 years of age.
  • Mating takes place between September and November via external fertilization.
  • Clutches of eggs range in size from 140 to 450, but only a small fraction of the eggs hatch and reach maturity due to predation and environmental factors.
  • Males exclusively guard eggs from predators, including fish and other hellbenders.
  • Eggs hatch after 80 days.

Lifespan:

A hellbender can live up to 30 years in the wild, which is much longer than other Ozark salamanders.

Geographic Range:

The Ozark hellbender's range is limited to a handful of watersheds in southern Missouri and northern Arkansas, including the White River, the North Fork of the White River, Bryant Creek, Spring River, Eleven Point River, and the Current River. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has created a map depicting counties in which the hellbender has been reported.

Conservation Status:

The hellbender was officially listed as an endangered species under the Endangered Species Act by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on November 7, 2011.

Estimated Population:

Fewer than 600 Ozark hellbenders are estimated to exist in the wild.

Causes of Population Decline:

  • Habitat loss resulting from river dams, ore and gravel mining, sedimentation (silt clogging spaces among gravel), and nutrient and toxic runoff from farms and industrial facilities that have changed the natural oxygen levels, temperature, and flow of streams
  • Shelter and nest disruption by human recreation activities along streams
  • Chytrid fungus, a highly infectious and fatal disease found in Missouri hellbender populations

Conservation Efforts:

  • To curb unauthorized international trade, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will list all hellbenders in Appendix III of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) in 2012.
  • Ozark Hellbender Working Group, created in 2001, is a professional association that collaborates on field work, initiates research projects, and strives to identify and remedy primary threats to the hellbender's survival.
  • Government agencies and other conservation groups are mounting educational campaigns to inform people about the presence of hellbenders in the White River and other waterways with the goal of promoting conscientious recreation that will help preserve declining populations.

How You Can Help:

  • Volunteer to help a Missouri Stream Team or Arkansas Stream Team clean up natural waterways and monitor stream health in the hellbender's home range.
  • Properly dispose of trash, chemicals, and other pollutants so that it does not end up in a natural waterway.
  • If you catch a hellbender while fishing, cut the line as close to the hook as possible, and release the animal back into the river (the hook will rust away in a few weeks).
  • Try not to disturb large flat rocks in streams that hellbenders may use for shelter.

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