Eastern Hellbender

Photo: TR Russ

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Scientific Name:  Cryptobranchus a. alleganiensis

Classification: Nongame species; state listed as special concern

Range/Abundance: Rare (blue)

Species Profile (PDF)


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Hellbender photo #1 (Photo by Lori Williams)

Hellbender photo #2 (Photo by Lori Williams)

Hellbender Gilled Larva Photo (Photo by Lori Williams)

Additional Information

The Eastern Hellbender is one of only three giant salamanders found in the world. North Carolina is home to more than 65 species of salamanders, with over 50 species in the mountain region alone. The Eastern Hellbender (Cryptobranchus a. alleganiensis) is one of the largest salamanders found in North Carolina and the United States. Only the Greater Siren and the Two-toed Amphiuma, both large eel-like salamanders, are longer. 

Hellbenders are 16 to 17 inches long on average, but they can grow to be more than 2 feet long and weigh more than 3 pounds. The hellbender’s skin on its back ranges in color from grayish brown to reddish brown. Darker spots or mottled patches may also be present on the back. The belly is usually one color and generally lighter than the back. The hellbender’s head and body are flattened, with a rounded snout and a pair of small, poorly developed eyes. The hellbender is mostly nocturnal, and relies on touch and smell to catch food, although it does see relatively well. The hellbender absorbs dissolved oxygen found in fast-running waters through its skin. A loose fold of skin called a “frill” runs from the base of the neck down to the tail on each side of its body. The frill increases the surface area of the skin, helping the hellbender breath. Hatchling and 1-to-2 year hellbenders have external gills. Gill slits located at the base of the throat replace external gills when the young reach 1½ to 2 years. The young hellbender is then able to absorb oxygen through its skin. The hellbender is mature at about 6 to 8 years of age, at which time it is about 1 foot long. It will continue to grow for many years to come.

Learn more by reading the Eastern Hellbender species profile.

The Eastern Hellbender is classified as a nongame species with no open season. It is state-listed as a species of special concern. Because hellbenders are a protected species, it is illegal to kill, harm, collect, harass or sell them. The hellbender also is a Species of Greatest Conservation Need in the N.C. Wildlife Action Plan.

Although they are large and slimy, contrary to popular belief hellbenders are not poisonous or venomous. In fact, they are quite harmless. Many hellbenders are killed by people out of fear or ignorance, which is part of why their survival in North Carolina is at risk. A common misconception is that hellbenders negatively impact trout or other fish populations. Hellbenders may occasionally grab at bait on a fishing line if the opportunity presents itself, or scavenge dead or discarded fish parts, but their main source of food is crayfish. In fact, fish can be bigger predators on young or larval hellbenders than hellbenders are on fish.

Presence of hellbenders in a stream or river is a sign that the water is clean and relatively clear of pollutants, and they disappear when waterways become too clogged with silt or chemicals. Because of this they can be important indicators of waterway health. Seeing a hellbender is actually a good sign that the waterway is healthy. The public can help biologists monitor this important species by sharing information about hellbender sightings. If you have recently seen a hellbender, you can report it by phone to: (919) 707-0050 or email: lori.williams@ncwildlife.org.

NCWRC Wildlife Diversity Program biologists, along with project partners (e.g., other agencies, volunteers, universities, etc.), began a long-term inventory and monitoring project for hellbenders in 2007. Biologists’ goals are to study hellbender populations in the state, revisit historical locations, discover new locations, monitor increasing threats to habitats and educate the public on hellbender conservation. The public can help biologists in their efforts by informing them of where they are observing hellbenders. People who wish to share their hellbender observations with the NCWRC can contact agency staff directly or submit their observations to: (919) 707-0050 or lori.williams@ncwildlife.org.