What’s Happening with Hellbenders?

The Eastern Hellbender (Cryptobranchus alleganiensis)

The Eastern Hellbender is the largest North American salamander and happens to be the Pennsylvania State Amphibian.  The Hellbender is directly related to species that lived 65 million years ago.  Although denied protections under the Endangered Species Act, conservation efforts are being used to protect populations deemed “Near Threatened” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

Hellbenders need cold, flowing waterways to survive.   They spend most of their time in dark crevices and cracks surrounding large flat rocks and boulders.  When these areas get slightly embedded, the hellbender uses these spots to hide and wait for prey to appear.  Their main sources of food are crayfish, insects, and small fish.  Young Hellbenders have gills.  Shortly following, Hellbenders adapt and gain the ability to breathe through their skin, using lungs mostly for buoyancy. 

Are Hellbender Populations in Decline?

We are working to find out!!  The Western Pennsylvania Conservancy and Ohiopyle State Park invited us to join on a three-day hellbender survey of the Youghiogheny River.  Our job was to oversee the safety of the individuals completing the survey.  Those looking for Hellbenders were in full scuba gear and would work their way along the river bed looking for appropriate habitat.  Some areas were calm but others were flowing quickly. Frequently, areas surveyed were within or very near a large rapid.  After three long days of looking, no Hellbenders were found.  Although we were sent pictures of Hellbenders every day, they were all found in different sections of the river. 

Hellbenders have been found in the Youghiogheny River, Laurel Hill Creek, and the Casselman River.  We are excited to say that Hellbenders live in Indian Creek as well!  Jace, who lives on Indian Creek, was excited about the rare discovery he made while working near the creek.  Unfortunately, this Hellbender has moved on to Bender Heaven. However, it provides some insight into the presence of Hellbenders in Indian Creek.  The skeletal remains of an adult Hellbender were found in a section of Indian Creek once devastated by the impacts from coal mining. 

So, how can we protect the Hellbender?

Several things we can do: 

  1. Continue to document Hellbender populations and changes in stream habitat.   
  2. Protect Cold Water Streams
    1. Remove dams
    2. Increase forested/riparian buffers around waterways
    3. Reduce sedimentation
    4. Protect the Hemlocks
  3. Reduce our impact on climate change
  4. Stop Stacking Rocks!!

The Youghiogheny River is home to hundreds of unique and rare species.  Be sure to protect what you love, whether you can see it or not… Defend the Yough!