The name, Ozark Hellbender, conjures images of a wicked fast roller coaster or perhaps, an outlaw biker gang yet in reality it’s neither. The Ozark Hellbender is one of the world’s largest salamanders. It’s a homely creature. It’s not going to win second prize or any prize in a beauty contest, but nonetheless it deserves a chance to live. In October 2011, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed the Ozark Hellbender as an Endangered Species.
As one of the largest salamanders in the world, it grows up to 2.5 feet long and lives nearly thirty years. It’s native to the Southern Missouri and Northern Arkansas Ozarks. Salamanders are amphibians. This particular amphibian has four legs and a tail, and a flattened body that is green, brown, or black in color. It’s strictly an aquatic animal, and has a thick, moist skin. Although it has lungs, it breathes through its skin.
Hellbenders have a bad, but mistaken reputation among fishermen. Many fishermen believe that Ozark Hellbenders eat game fish and ruin fishing holes. This mistaken belief led to bounties for these salamanders during the 20s and 30s. Fishermen also believe that Hellbenders are poisonous. They are not venomous, but will bite if provoked, and their skin secretes a substance that is somewhat toxic and can cause eye irritation. The fact is that the presence of an Ozark Hellbender is an indication that the stream you’re fishing in is healthy. Since they breathe through their skin, dirty or polluted water is a death sentence.
Ozark Hellbenders begin life as an egg in a fast-flowing, cool stream with lots of large, flat rocks to hide under. The male protects a nest of 140 to 450 eggs which hatch after eighty days. After hatching, they begin the slow process of maturation which takes five to eight years before being able to breed. During that time, most of the baby salamanders are eaten. Because of the long time it takes to reach a reproductive stage, killing an adult Ozark Hellbender puts a real dent in the sustainability of the species.
As an adult, Ozark Hellbenders are nocturnal. They spend their days beneath large flat rocks and come out at night to dine upon their favorite food, crayfish. If crayfish are not available, they will eat small fish as well as cannibalize young of their own species. Their lifespan in the wild is between twenty-five and thirty years.
Despite their homely appearance, Ozark Hellbenders have become a popular pet. Over-collection accounts for part of their endangered status. Siltation—when soil runs off the land and into streams—is another culprit. The dirt covers rocks, smothers the Hellbender habitat, killing the Hellbender as well as other species. Road-building, urbanization, and poor agricultural practices is a significant cause of siltation. Another reason under investigation is a highly infectious fungal disease, chytridiomycosis. Testing revealed that the “chytrid” fungus has infected all Ozark Hellbender populations in Missouri.