Ozark Hellbender Salamanders
Tue, Oct 26 2010 at 10:45 AM
Devil dog. Snot otter. Alleghany alligator. Mud cat. The Ozark Hellbender Salamander has been called a lot of unflattering names, and its strange, creature-from-the-deep appearance doesn't help to dispell any unfounded fears. This shy amphibian, however, is no threat to humans - in fact, the reverse is true: humans are threatening the survival of this endangered species.
Ozark Hellbender Salamanders
Hellbenders are prehistoric, with fossil records dating back over 150 million years. One of the largest salamanders in the world, the Ozark Hellbender can grow to over two feet in length over its 30-year lifespan. This subspecies of the Hellbender salamander is found only in the Ozarks in Missouri and northern Arkansas, where it lives under large rocks in fast-flowing, oxygen-rich streams. Primarily nocturnal, the Hellbender comes out at night to hunt for its favorite food, crayfish, and to mate in the fall.
The Hellbender is strictly aquatic and breathes entirely through its skin, which is porous and wrinkled to help efficiently draw oxygen from the water. Unfortunately, the qualities of its skin also makes the amphibian especially susceptible to reduced water quality. Mining, unsustainable forestry, farming, cattle ranching, four-wheeling, and other human activities all contribute to increased pollution and sedimentation in the Ozark rivers and streams that the Hellbender calls home.
To make matters worse, the highly-infectious "chytrid fungus" is having a devastating effect on amphibian populations throughout the world, and Hellbenders have not been lucky enough to escape this fatal disease. A recent survey determined the fungus is present in all remaining Missouri populations of the Ozark Hellbender.
Today, researchers estimate the Hellbender salamander population to be fewer than 590 individual animals.
Helping the Hellbender
Because the Ozark Hellbender is found only in Ozark rivers and streams, its survival depends on preserving the health of these waterways. One of the primary threats to the Hellbender's habitat is unsustainable forestry, which increases water temperatures and floods the rivers with sediment. Depleted oxygen levels and warmer waters make it difficult for Hellbenders to thrive.
The Conservancy is improving the Hellbender's habitat by working with private landowners to promote sustainable forestry practices, primarily through the use of conservation easements. Additionally, several Conservancy-owned preserves are located in the Ozarks region, and the Current River is a top conservation priority. You can help us to achieve tangible, lasting results by contributing to these innovative, science-based intiatives.
The Ozark Hellbender has been a part of Missouri's natural history for millenia. By working together to protect its habitat, the Hellbender can remain one of Missouri's most ancient and unusual species.