Smoky Mountain Hellbenders

Smoky Mountain Hellbenders are the largest salamander in Great Smoky Mountains.

Smoky Mountain Hellbenders are the largest salamander in Great Smoky Mountains. Photo credit:  David Herasimtschuk and Freshwater Illustrated.

Smoky Mountain Hellbenders are the largest aquatic salamanders in the national park. You may recognize the Hellbender (Cryptobranchus alleganiensis) by one of its other colorful names; snot otter, water dog, Allegheny alligator or mud dog. The male and female Hellbenders average in length from ten to sixteen inches. It has a flat body and head with slimy skin which gives it the ability to easily slip under submerged stones searching for food. The Hellbender serves as both predator and prey in the ecosystem.

Hellbenders are found in fast-moving, clean mountain streams in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Like frogs, Hellbenders are excellent indicators of water quality in streams and rivers. Since they breathe through their skin, hellbenders are sensitive to poor water quality, and are considered “bioindicators.” These species can tell biologists about degrading environmental conditions when they first start changing. As Hellbender populations decline so do other species in the environment.

The old timers say the name Hellbender likely came from the strange look of the salamander. One origin story says “It is a creature from hell and it is bent on getting back there!” There is no doubt the unusual appearance can spark the imagination but science reminds us the species is the product of millions of years of evolution and not a spawn from hell.

The hellbenders are large, slimy and can be scary looking, particularly if you’ve never seen one before, they are nothing to fear. They are harmless and not poisonous, venomous or toxic. And while they may try to bite if picked up, they will leave you alone, if you leave them alone,” Wildlife Diversity Biologist Lori Williams.

Hellbenders are listed as species of special concern in North Carolina. Because of this listing, it is illegal to take, possess, transport or sell a hellbender or to attempt to do so. A violation is a Class 1 misdemeanor, which can result in a fine and up to 120 days in jail.

N. C. Wildlife Resources Commission has asked the public, particularly anglers, to help track Hellbender populations. If you happen to find one note the location (GPS coordinates would be great) and take a photo. Email the information to lori.williams@ncwildlife.org. If you happen to catch one on hook and line, carefully remove the hook if it is safe to do so without harming the animal or cut the line as close as possible and return it back to the water.Sightings can also be reported to Commission Wildlife Interaction Helpline by (866) 318-2401.

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