What's Hurting Our Hellbenders?

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Published on: Jun. 2, 2004

Last revision: Nov. 16, 2010


and Jacks Fork rivers.

The deformities are truly mysterious. There's no indication of injury, which would be the case if predators like otters or minks were responsible. Researchers are taking blood samples to determine if a detectable disease is present and to check for compounds like estrogen, which can be found in run-off contaminated by animal waste. Naturally, the deformities are unsettling. If something in the water is causing this, then it might affect people, too.

The working group hopes to be able to determine if the hellbender is the "canary in the coal mine" for Ozark streams. They want to know whether their decline is part of a natural population cycle, or if it is evidence of serious habitat degradation. It's important to find out whether human activities, including pollution, are causing the decline, and whether the hellbender's decline is reversible.

What You Can Do To Help

You can help the hellbender and the people who are trying to save them.

  • Report hellbender sightings to Jeff Briggler at (573) 522-4115, ext. 3201, or e-mail <>. Because they are on the streams at night, giggers probably see more hellbenders than anyone else. If you gig, report how many hellbenders you see.
  • Protect hellbender habitat from disturbance.
  • If you catch a hellbender while fishing, cut the line to release it.
  • Report illegal taking of hellbenders.
  • Join a Stream Team to get involved in habitat protection and water quality monitoring.

Hellbenders have a rightful place in Missouri streams. They are an integral, fascinating and harmless component of a healthy ecosystem. With your help, they may once again flourish in their native waters.

Hellbender Highlights

  • Hellbenders are part of the family known as giant salamanders.The largest specimens in North America are about two and one-half feet long. In Asia,members of this family grow to five feet long.
  • Hellbenders breathe through their skin. The many folds of skin undulate as water flows around the animal. Capillaries near the skin surface capture oxygen from the flowing water.
  • Early references suggest hellbenders were so named because their undulating skin reminded observers of "horrible tortures of the infernal regions." A later reference credits an angler who, upon encountering a hellbender, supposed it to be "a creature from hell where it's bent on returning."
  • Hellbenders have many nicknames, including mud-devils,water-dogs, alligators of the mountains and walking catfish.
  • Hellbenders are not dangerous.They are harmless, unique animals that depend on humans to keep their habitat intact.

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