Hellbender Salamanders: Giant Indicators of Clean Water

  • Young Eastern Hellbenders have been found in new streams in the Allegheny National Forest. Photo: Alysha Trexler

  • It takes a team of researchers to lift the heavy rocks under which Hellbenders call home. Photo: Alysha Trexler

  • Mature Eastern Hellbenders can grow to two feet long, and weigh over four pounds. Photo: Alysha Trexler

March 29, 2013

Each summer since 2007, Eric Chapman leads a team out into Little Mahoning Creek in Indiana, Pa. They risk life and limb hoisting rocks the size of kitchen tables, searching for Eastern Hellbender salamanders.

Hellbenders can grow to over two feet long and weigh upwards of four pounds. But despite their heft, Eastern Hellbenders are hard to spot. They’re camouflaged because they are flat, mud brown, and slimy, and have tiny, beady eyes. You might say they have a face only a mother could love. Or a researcher like Eric Chapman of the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy. Chapman says there’s more to Hellbenders than meets the eye. For one thing, no one knows how long they live—but he’s seen speculations of up to 50 years.

“To find large adult Hellbenders in a stream tells you that you’ve had good, stable water quality for a number of years,” Chapman adds.

That’s because Hellbenders can only live in very clean water. And they are facing a number of threats.

Chapman explains that they essentially breathe through their skin, so any kind of environmental pollution or changes could mean real trouble. Industry and acid mine drainage could impact where they live and breed.

“If a spill happens, that is going to impact the Hellbenders pretty much instantly. They’re one of the first species to disappear if there would be a problem in a stream,” Chapman says.

One analysis classifies them as extremely vulnerable to climate change, as well. Hellbenders have been found living in surprisingly warm water, even up to 80 degrees. But warming temperatures could still present a risk.

“If you get higher temperatures you can see a decrease in dissolved oxygen, and so it could be harder on amphibians for respiration,” Chapman says.

Another danger for the salamanders lurks in the water, as stocked trout eat young Hellbenders. 

But there’s cause for hope. Researchers are discovering new Hellbender populations. They’ve been found in seven streams in the Allegheny National Forest where Hellbenders have never been recorded before. New finds like these will help Chapman and his team answer looming questions. For example, why some older animals have been rapidly gaining weight while others are losing.

Chapman says that depending on funding, they’ll continue to fumble under rocks, until more is understood. This season they may venture into Washington County to search for the elusive animal.

What researchers have already learned about Hellbenders is pretty cool.  Hellbenders are kind of gender-benders. Chapman says male Hellbenders actually create a nest by scooping out mud under rocks for females to lay eggs in.

“He fertilizes the eggs, and then the female leaves and the male actually guards the eggs which is unique,” Chapman says.