The hands-on experience of discovering
hellbenders was among the reasons King
switched her college major to environmental
resource management. After graduation, she
went on to work for CBF and is now a soil
conservationist in Juniata County.
King had no idea what a hellbender was
before studying them 10 years ago. “It looks
prehistoric. You have no idea they exist,” she
says of Pennsylvania’s largest salamander.
“When you find them, they are relatively easy
to catch, but tough little buggers to find.”
Visually, some folks find the hellbender’s
flattened body, beady eyes, tiny legs, and
thick folds of slimy, extra skin, to be a
strange combination to fathom.
Its looks could have something to do with
the animal’s name. “No one really knows the
origin,” says Dr. Petokas, research associate
at the Clean Water Institute at Lycoming
College in Williamsport, Pennsylvania. “The
most common idea,” Petokas adds, “is that
anything that ugly is surely bent for hell.”
The folds of wrinkled skin provide a large
surface through which the big salamanders
draw most of their oxygen. A coating of slippery mucous gives the hellbender the ability
to get away and hide, traits that have allowed
some to live up to 30 years.
Strapped with less fashionable names like
“snot otters,” “mud-devils,” and “water
dogs,” the blotchy-brown Eastern hellbender
can grow to 29 inches.
Dr. Petokas has been studying hellbenders
for the past 10 years and has captured and
micro-chipped over 3,000 of them.
“They are incredibly soft, like a sponge,” he
adds. “It’s an adaptation so they can squeeze
into tight spaces under rocks the size of
small cars. They are quite shy and don’t like
to be out in the light.”
That hellbenders are poisonous and eat trout
are popular misconceptions. “It’s because
people don’t understand them or see them
as magnificent as the bald eagle,” Dr. Petokas
says. They do have a lot of small teeth and
feed primarily on crayfish.
“We were warned to keep our fingers away,”
Jay Blackwell remembers. Blackwell is an
angler in Cumberland County and caught
more than his share of hellbenders 35
years ago, while growing up in northern
Pennsylvania. He was never bitten by one.
“We would catch four to ten of them a
night, between four or six of us going
out,” Blackwell adds. They were fishing for
eels. “The hellbenders put up a fight when
hooked. Often they would take you under a
rock and get you snagged.”
Pat Naugle, from Adams County, encountered his first hellbender along the
Susquehanna River at Harrisburg 20 years
ago. “Some fishermen had a hellbender and
I’d never seen one before or since,” Naugle
says. He has caught just about every type of
fish the river has to offer and estimated the
salamander to have been 20 inches. “Once
you see one, you never forget it. It was big,
looked soft and mushy.”
The fact that hellbender stories are decades
old, says something about their existence
today. The reason goes beyond the salamander’s own instinctive, secretive nature.
“Today, hellbenders can be found in just a
few tributaries of the Susquehanna River,”
Dr. Petokas says. “There was probably a
dozen or so streams that had them in 1990,
but those populations are all gone now.”
Like a lot of Pennsylvania’s aquatic life, the
hellbender’s survival depends on clear, cold,
Petokas believes that chytrid fungus,
attributed to the global decline of amphibians, may be partly responsible for the dwindling number of hellbenders. More than
40 percent of the big salamanders he has
tested are infected with the fungus. Petokas’
hypothesis is that a strain of the fungus or an
unknown pathogen may be the cause of the
rapid loss of hellbenders in many watersheds
in Pennsylvania and New York.
Even grimmer, Dr. Petokas thinks the
Susquehanna hellbender population could
disappear completely. They are a species
of special concern in Pennsylvania and the
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is considering
them for listing as threatened or endangered.
A cooperative program—started in 2014
between Petokas, Lycoming College, the
Upper Susquehanna Coalition, and the
Bronx Zoo—hopes to replenish hellbender
populations. The goal is to raise the young
salamanders until they are big enough to
avoid predators and be released where populations have disappeared or are declining.
Artificial habitat structures in streams provide shelter for the hellbenders and easy
access for researchers to collect eggs. Eighty-five young salamanders from Pennsylvania
are now being raised at the Bronx Zoo in
New York City. A new facility under construction in New York will care for the young
hellbenders until they reach three or four
years of age. Plans are in place to create permanent habitat where it has been lost due to
The goal is to ensure that impressions made
by hellbenders on folks like Blackwell,
Naugle, and King aren’t among the last ones
we ever hear about.
B.J. Small—CBF’s Pennsylvania
Media and Communications
Coordinator—longs for an
ugly experience with a
Today, hellbenders can be found in just a few tributaries of
the Susquehanna River. There was probably a dozen or so streams
that had them in 1990, but those populations are all gone now.
Dr. Peter Petokas has been studying hellbenders
for the past 10 years and has captured and
microchipped over 3,000 of them.