Hellbender Aquatic Salamander You Saw a What in the River
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Hellbender Aquatic Salamander You Saw a What in the River

The Hellbender is a very large aquatic salamander native to the southwestern corner and south central region of New York state, further south and west, with local pockets in the states of Missouri and Arkansas...

Native to North America, this Hellbender thing is a very large salamander that dwells in shallow fast-moving streams and can be found under large rocks. This water salamander is also called a “devil dog,” a “grampus” and “Allegheny alligator”.

Growing up in western New York state, -in Allegany County in fact and not too far from the town of Allegheny and the Allegheny River, I saw one of these damn things once! I was swimming in the Genesee River above a man-made cement dam with a school friend. We were throwing fist-sized colorful rocks into the deeper end of the natural swimming hole, and diving in after them. The bottom of the river there was covered in small round-ish flat stones, and was fairly deep in places. I was trying to swim down and touch the bottom when I saw what looked like a fleshy fat alligator, walking slowly along the bottom.

Hellbender salamander model and skeleton of same, museum case

Image Source

Cryptobranchus alleganiensis a.k.a. the “Hellbender” salamander

It had a rounded shovel-nose, short stubby legs and a peculiar slow side-to-side almost serpentine gait as it walked. It seemed to be stirring up a bit of silt as it moved across the stony & silted river bottom. I was sure that it had beady little eyes on the top of its fleshy head, -sort of like an anaconda or an alligator, looking straight up at me!

map of western New York State, showing where Hellbender salamanders can be found

Image via Wikipedia

I nearly spit my last breath right there but instead turned and swam quite quickly to the surface and headed away from that spot. Upon telling what I had seen, everyone said that what I must have seen was a submerged log or silt-covered rock formation… no such lizard or salamander exists. I dared my friend to dive down and have a look for himself, but no, he said that he was through swimming for the day… (uh-huh!)

Well imagine my surprise when some years later I learned about …the Hellbender salamander!

Another View of the Hellbender

Hellbender salamander on display

Image Source

Wikipedia: the Missouri Department of Conservation says that the suggestive name “hellbender” is possibly derived from the creature’s bizarre appearance, as if it had came from Hell and was ‘hell-bent upon returning’ to use the colorful colloquial phrase.

I like the version of the naming convention I was told about years earlier better than this one, that a ‘bender’ was ‘a night of hard-drinking.’ So, “Oh, -he’s been on a bender” means exactly that, that he’s been drinking heavily lately. The animated cartoon series “Futurama” features a robot named “bender” whom also loves to drink alcohol, so its no coincidence there either.

Anyway, if someone were fishing and hooked one of these on their line, in terror and shock they probably would have cut the line and allowed it to get away. Hellbenders do sometimes take the baited hooks of anglers.

When the fisherman tells this whopper of a fish-tale (maybe after a drink or two) they would likely be accused of having been ‘on a hellbender’ when they had seen this. "Hellbender" being a rather intense or profound ’bender’ (drinking binge) and thus implied that they imagined or fabricated the event.

At any rate, what I saw or think I saw was maybe three feet long and perhaps 6 or 7-inches wide on average. It was a bit longer than my arm, and wider than my leg at the knee. I think the true hellbender salamander still falls a quite a bit short of this description as a hellbender is only about 9 or 10-inches long even though the shape and fleshy appearance is spot-on of what I remember seeing.

Hellbenders are native to southwestern and south central New York state (describes perfectly where I am from,) westward to southern Illinois and south to Mississippi, with denser populations in eastern Tennessee.

Hellbenders are also found in the north of the states of Alabama and Georgia, with localized pockets of an isolated specie in east-central Missouri as well.

There, the sub-species is the “Ozark hellbender (C. a.bishopi) and this same sub-specie is also found in isolated northeast Arkansas, suggesting that a transplanted population occurred in the past.

A Live Example of a Hellbender

live hellbender salamander in the river

Image Source

These creatures can be found under rocks in fast-flowing rivers or streams that have rocky bottoms. They are seldom found in deeper waters, or too far away from rock cover as they are easy prey for other creatures such as snapping turtles, water snakes, large fish, and water birds like cranes and blue herons.

Hellbenders live alone and have been observed defending their territorial rock enclave from other hellbenders. They do not or very rarely will they share an enclave with another of their specie. They stay hidden during the day and come out to forage and hunt for live food at night. They sometimes come out in the day when it is overcast, cloudy or rainy.

view of a western New York state river, typical of where Hellbender salamanders might be found

Image via Wikipedia

Their diet is one of small fish, mollusks like freshwater clams and snails etc. Crayfish are their main prey, -and even other smaller hellbenders.

Hellbenders have been discovered to have also eaten toads and small mammals that they either caught or killed, carrion that they happened upon. Hellbenders do not leave the water, ever.

Hellbenders apparently shed their own skin which they will also eat, as well as smaller adults of their own species, their own eggs and the eggs of other hellbenders.

This Looks like what I Saw

hellbender, giant salamander

Image via Wikipedia

Hellbender populations are declining through a number of potential factors cited by Wikipedia which are; creation of dams (habitat changes,) water pollution, the exotic pet trade is a big factor (in China and Japan, the live creature can sell for up to $1700.00) and of course, being caught by anglers/fishermen whom then kill the creature, mistakenly believing that these salamanders are damaging the trout fisheries.

Hellbenders are particularly susceptible to water pollutants like most amphibians are also because of their permeable skin. They breathe oxygen entirely through their skin folds and only use their lungs for buoyancy. In fact, hellbender can survive with its lung surgically removed, so efficient is their ability to extract oxygen from the water via their loose folds of skin.

Giant Salamander

Giant Salamander

Image Source

Related to the Hellbender, the Asian Giant Salamander seen here, grows up to 4ft 7in (1.4m) and the even larger Chinese Giant Salamander can reach a length of 5ft. 9in. (1.8m.) Now we are getting into and well past the range of the size of the thing that I think I saw in the Genesee River all those years ago.

What I saw was at least as long or LONGER than my arm. It was close to the girth of my leg just above my knee, with its head being bulbous and pan-shaped. Snub-nosed, flatish and about the size of a very large grapefruit or medium cantaloupe so, -what the HELL did I see in that river all those years ago? I really do not know. I don’t intend to go swimming there again to find out!

A Japanese Giant Salamander

Japanese Giant Salamander display

Image Source Flickr.com c/o Ryan Somma

This looks similar to the Hellbender, don’t you think? These get quite a bit larger than the Hellbenders of western New York and America though.

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Comments (1)
Gary Hoover


Out with my 3 1/2 year-old son in a market in Shanghai, China... he wanted some lizards... we got them and brought them home... living in our fish tank...

Trying to find out information about the lizards, I believe they are Giant Salamanders from China. The larger lizard bites hold of the smaller... though both are relatively the same size...

Can anyone tell me more about these creatures?