What is a Hellbender?

If you walked up on a Hellbender while wading or fishing in the Nantahala River or Little Tennessee River, you might yelp and jump back. Don’t worry, Hellbenders may be huge and slimy, but they are harmless. Please don’t kill them out of fear. Eastern Hellbenders can be found as far south as Alabama and all the way up north to New York. Ozark Hellbenders are found out west in Missouri and Arkansas. There aren’t many left in the wild and they are in danger of disappearing from some mountain rivers completely. What exactly is a Hellbender? Well, Carolina Outfitters and Carolina Ocoee are here to arm you with information about this gentle beast of area rivers.


Brian Gratwicke from DC, USA, CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

François Marie Daudin, a French Zoologist, first described the Hellbender Salamander (Cryptobranchus Alleganiensis) in 1803 as a creature with hidden gills, a flat body and rudder-like tail. Later it was proven that adult Hellbenders lose their gills and get 90 percent of their oxygen through their skin. Hellbenders can grow up to 29 inches long and weigh as much as 5 pounds. There are two species of hellbenders in North America: the Eastern Hellbender and the Ozark Hellbender. The Eastern Hellbender, which can be found in Western North Carolina, was first discovered along the Allegheny Mountains–a portion of the Appalachian Mountains chain. The Ozark Hellbender is only found in small areas of Missouri and Arkansas. Hellbenders are the largest amphibian in North America and third largest in the world. Eastern Hellbenders are part of the Cryptobranchidae family of salamanders. An ancient group of salamanders of the Cryptobranchidae family dates back to 40 million years ago. Fossils of salamanders from that period are similar to the Hellbender, making some consider them a living fossil.

Hellbenders Habitat & Diet


Brian Gratwicke, CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Hellbenders are totally aquatic, living their lives entirely in swift-flowing clean freshwater habitats. They can swim, but they also walk under water. They secrete a slimy substance, but the secretion is harmless and not poisonous to humans or other creatures as myth would have you believe. Their water must be unpolluted in order for them to thrive in the wild. Hellbenders hide under flat rocks and sunken trees which are also used for nesting sites. Their main diet consists of crayfish, frogs, and small fish which they catch while lying in ambush or foraging after dark. They den during the daylight hours and become active at night. They are not a threat to fish populations. In fact, fish will eat juvenile hellbenders. 

Endangered Species


Brian Gratwicke, CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

The states of North Carolina and New York list the hellbender as a species of special concern. The Hellbender is listed as an endangered species in Maryland, Ohio, Illinois and Indiana. It’s a threatened species in Alabama. Their life and habitat are under attack by pollution and people killing them out of ignorance because they fear they are venomous. The changing ecosystem and disease are a major threat to these docile amphibians who can live up to 30 years in the wild and quite possibly up to 50 years.

Hellbender Nicknames


Brian Gratwicke, CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

According to folklore, Hellbenders got their unusual common name from early settlers who saw the creatures and said they looked like “a creature from hell where it’s bent on returning.” What other names are given to the Hellbender?

  • Snot Otter – They secrete a non-venomous slimy mucus from their skin when threatened. 
  • Devil Dog – Hellbenders look scary and, as some would say, like something that crawled out of Hell.  
  • Grampus – This one is a head scratcher. A Grampus is a species of the dolphin family, so maybe size has something to do with the nickname as hellbenders are a large species of salamander.
  • Allegheny Alligator – Named for the Allegheny River in New York where some make their home.
  • Mud Dog – Their color helps them blend into their environment on the river bottom and they can look like gray or brown rocks.
  • Water Dog – Hellbenders live in water most of the time, but can breathe on land for short periods of time. 
  • Lasagna Lizards  – They have lasagna like folds along their sides that help their skin breathe oxygen from the water.

Those are just a few of the nicknames given to the Hellbender. Some call Hellbenders a mudpuppy, but mudpuppies are a different and smaller salamander and contain spots on their skin. For more info on Hellbenders visit North Carolina Wildlife.

Now that you know all about Hellbenders, be sure and BOOK a white water rafting trip with Carolina Outfitters or Carolina Ocoee before you leave! 

Margaret Marr, is a local author of paranormal, mystery, and suspense laced with romance. She has written over 15 books available on Amazon. 


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