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Discover Nature: Hellbender Breeding Peaks

A green, black spotted hellbender blends into its rocky streambed surroundings in clear water.
Jeff Briggler
An eastern hellbender (Cryptobranchus alleganiensis) swims along a gravel streambed. These harmless aquatic salamanders are breeding in some Missouri stream bottoms this week. Hellbenders are a key indicator of overall health of a stream. They’re currently listed as an endangered species and could be extinct within 20 years

As autumn begins in Missouri, one of the state’s most fragile and unique species is active beneath the surface of some streams.

Hellbenders are large aquatic salamanders, reaching lengths of more than a foot. Ozark and Eastern Hellbenders have a wide, flat head with tiny eyes and a broad, rudder-like tail. They breathe through their sensitive skin – usually grayish-brown in color, and covered in prominent folds.

In late summer and early autumn, females lay as many as 200 – 700 eggs, which males fertilize and guard until they hatch.

Healthy hellbenders can live more than 30 years, but females may not breed until they are seven or eight years old and may only breed every two to three years.

Despite their ominous name and rugged appearance, hellbenders pose no threat to humans or game fish populations. In fact, hellbenders are a major indicator of the overall health of a stream. If there is something in the water that is causing their decline, it can also affect other species, including people.

Hellbenders have been on our continent for more than 6-million years, and play an important role in a natural aquatic environment. But they are now listed as endangered in Missouri, and may become extinct in less than 20 years.

The Ozark Hellbender lives only in one river system in southern Missouri and northern Arkansas, and has been listed as federally endangered. Since the 1980s, its population has decreased by about 75% due to habitat loss, diminished water quality, illegal collection, and disease.

Learn more about Missouri’s hellbenders, and other salamanders, with the Missouri Department of Conservation’s online field guide.

Discover Nature is sponsored by the Missouri Department of Conservation. 

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