CRESTLINE -- Frogs, fish and turtles are a common sight in the creeks and riverbeds of Crawford County. However, on extremely rare occasions, a keen eye can spot a very peculiar species protruding from a rock beneath the water: the Eastern Hellbender.
The Eastern Hellbender is a species of salamander that can reach up to 26 inches in length; securing its position as the largest amphibious species in North America. Compared to other salamanders, this species has a unique set of ruffles that run along the sides of its bodies.
Native to Ohio and most of the eastern United States near the Appalachian Mountain Range, it is the third largest salamander species in the world; sitting behind the Japanese Giant Salamander and the Chinese Giant Salamander (which can grow to an astounding 6 feet in length).
Hellbenders are fully aquatic carnivorous salamanders that live under huge rocks around the size of a pickup truck in semi-deep flowing waters. This incredibly niche habitat is one of the factors that have caused such a decline in Hellbender population, thus landing them a spot on Ohio’s list of endangered species.
Josh Dyer, Director of the Lowe-Volk Nature Center in Crawford County, detailed humanity’s toll on the giant salamander.
“Through the course of human civilization: we came, we saw, we conquered,” Dyer said. “Ohio went from 95 percent forested down to less than 10 percent forested.
“Fortunately, today we’ve recovered some.”
Deforestation removes precious tree cover over entities of water that hellbenders rely on to keep the waters cool and well-oxygenated. This also causes evaporation of streams and creeks which then results in the loss of habitat.
Another factor that plays into the endangerment story is mining that occurs on hillsides near bodies of water. As loose soil from the diluted hillsides fills nearby streams, siltation occurs and a hellbender’s home is buried.
Natural predators such as snakes or raccoons also play a role in the population decline. Poachers will infiltrate a hellbender’s habitat, catch them and sell hellbenders and their eggs on an illegal market for profit or notoriety.
In the wild, hellbenders are territorial and lay 50 to 100 eggs at a time. Lesions and missing appendages plague older hellbenders; each scar earned from defending the rock that species calls home.
Hellbenders, unlike other salamander species, show evidence of husbandry. After eggs are laid, the male companion will stay behind and guard the eggs until they hatch.
“The juveniles actually live in what we call the ‘interstitial spaces’ of the stream bed,” Dyer said. “A good stream bed is made up of gravel, sand, a little bit of silt and cobble of varying sizes.
“When you try and fit that all together, you have these spaces in that bed, where these guys are hanging out.”
Recently, efforts have been made to replenish the hellbender’s population. Research is being done by surgically implanting transmitters into salamanders bred in captivity. They are then released into the wild at around 3 years old (roughly 9 to 12 inches long) to observe their life cycle and behavioral habits.
Between 2012 and 2018, there were 957 hellbenders released at 23 different sites in Ohio, with 130 more due to be released this year. Regional rehabilitation of the species is similar to the efforts taking place in Arkansas with their native hellbender subspecies: the Ozark Hellbender.
Community members are encouraged to research and raise awareness of the endangered indigenous species. However, disturbing a hellbender’s habitat by turning over rocks and avidly searching for them is ill-advised and can cause dramatic damage to the species' population.
As a reminder, it is unlawful to possess these creatures without the proper licensure as per the Endangered Species Act.