It’s a Hellbender! Answer to Freak of the Week #16

What has small eyes, breathes by gas exchange through capillaries found on its skin folds, and has the nicknames “snot otter”, “devil dog”, and “walking catfish”? Well, if you said “Dave’s third grade teacher” you’d be right! But I was looking for “Hellbender” which is the best accepted common name for this large salamander, with the equally large scientific name Cryptobranchus alleganiensis.

This is not only the largest amphibian in Ohio, but also one of the largest in the world! The top honor goes to the Chinese giant salamander, which is the largest amphibian and the largest salamander in the world. It can get to over 5 feet long and weigh up to 80 pounds! Not surprisingly it is in the same family as the Hellbender, Cryptobranchidae – which means “hidden gill”. Our east-central United States Hellbender, still the third largest salamander in the world, ranges from about 15 24 inches long and from 3 – 5 pounds. That’s big for a salamander!

Not only are they big, but they are significant because of their stature as the most primitive amphibian in the state. The giant salamander family, Cryptobranchidae, dates all the way back to the Middle Jurassic, where early species are found in Asia. The surviving members of this family have changed so little that scientists say we can regard them “as living fossils whose structures have remained little changed for over 160 million years”!
Note the row of small teeth in this close-up shot.

So they are the largest and most primitive amphibian in Ohio, and that alone should get them into the Freaky Hall of Fame. But this species takes it one step further by their unusual system of respiration. The Hellbender absorbs oxygen from the water through capillaries found along the folds of skin down the sides of the animal! Their skin has been described as a “veritable gill” and accounts for most of the oxygen they receive. Thus they prefer faster moving water to keep a steady supply of oxygen but can still survive in slower moving waters. When in low oxygenated water, they will undulate their bodies back and forth to increase the flow of water over their skin.

Unfortunately, populations of the Hellbender have shown significant declines in recent years. In Ohio, the Hellbender is listed as an Endangered Species by the Ohio Division of Wildlife. Another subspecies of the Hellbender, the Ozark Hellbender, is found in Missouri and Arkansas and is listed as an Endangered Species by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The decline of Hellbender populations is due to a variety of causes, such as excessive siltation of rivers and streams from agricultural fields, livestock pastures, and logging areas; dams and blocking of their migration routes; pollution; disease; overharvesting; and large withdrawals of water from streams for industrial purposes.

This blog post is a sneak peak to our new exhibit opening this summer “Going, Going, GONE? Endangered and Extinct Species.” We will display this freeze-dried Hellbender in the exhibit along with many other specimens of endangered and extinct species from our collections. Stop by the Ohio Historical Center after July 2nd to see this new exhibit!

Amphibians of Ohio book

For a thorough and readable overview of everything about Hellbenders in Ohio, see the chapter Eastern Hellbender by Gregory J. Lipps, Jr. in the book Amphibians of Ohio. We featured this book in a blog post last December.

Posted April 22, 2014

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