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Married to a Hellbender

    Who would marry a Hellbender? The name itself sounds unreputable at best, like a biker gang turned rock band. The reality is perhaps worse, an oversized soft and slimy salamander, with a nickname of “old lasagna sides.” But to be married to a Hellbender, or better yet one of the world’s leading experts on Hellbenders (
Cryptobranchus alleganiensis), means you spend lots of time around pristine rivers. You focus your life and next family move based on those last remnant headwater streams that produce clear, cool spring-fed waters suitable for this rarest of rare amphibians.

    Perhaps you have never seen a Hellbender. That is easy to understand, as almost no one I know (and I work with biologists every day) has ever seen what my wife studies. Of those that have seen a Hellbender, most encounters are passed along as stories from old-timey bass and trout fisherman you run across at the corner store. Disturbingly, rather than just accidental by-catch, there is an increasing trend of Hellbenders being the target of hobbyists and herp enthusiasts. A quick Google search will reveal dozens, if not hundreds of blogs and websites where you can find a picture or field story from this determined group of weekend warriors eager to either see or catch a Hellbender. But to know a Hellbender requires more than pulling it out of the water for a picture or collecting it as a pet (which is illegal in most states because of their rarity). No, to really get to know a Hellbender you must snorkel down, meet it eye to beady-eye, see it in its natural crevice , watch it while you hold your breath, running out of air and endurance before surfacing for another gasp.

    Even with a snorkel or scuba tank, the Hellbender will win a staring contest . You can only marvel at its inactivity, for it will sit stoically as long as you let it. As you try to hold your place in the swift, clear flowing water your ears begin to ring from the cold, your mask begins to fog, darters and other small fish circle down by your hands and toes, and crayfish begin to emerge back into the open from under their rocks. It is only then, when you are patient and alone in the quiet of a river, that you notice that there is beauty in the Hellbender’s inactivity. You see before you an animal that at perhaps 14 inches long, is over a decade old, and already likely persisted through flash floods and droughts, introduced disease and increasing sediment from human development upstream that clogs up and covers its rock habitat. To live its whole life span of over 30 years, it will need to survive these increasing threats along with the prospect of a warming climate that could make the entire river inhospitable – but today it just sits there in front of you in its rock crevice, waiting for that stray crayfish to pass in front for a meal.

     As you can imagine, it is only the most determined, persistent, and passionate (and yes, stubborn) of women who would consider devoting their life to this species. A woman who hauled our family (dogs and all) around in a canoe in the Ozarks for three years studying the extremely rare and endangered Ozark Hellbender, and now has us living in a quiet valley in the Appalachians studying its more common and widespread (but still imperiled) cousin – the eastern Hellbender.

    So to marry a Hellbender biologist, and live where Hellbenders live, is in a sense a romantic thing. No doubt many would want to build a home-base near cool mountain rivers apart from the grunge of cities and commercial agriculture. Yet to be a romantic requires admission of fantasy, and thus being married to the Hellbender is also horribly depressing because our family knows that at the current rate of decline, a generation from now, no one will even have the opportunity to snorkel down to see a Hellbender. That it will likely only be an extinct species account in Wikipedia, relegated to mere trivia by future generations as one of the largest and longest-lived amphibians to have occurred in North America.

    In this way our household is paralyzed by a joy of living with and near one of America’s rarest salamanders, mixed with fear of its increasingly apparent and seemingly inevitable extinction. What can we do? What can you do? A few kernels of wisdom from my wife:

1. If you want to see a Hellbender, find a way to do it that has minimal impact for wild populations. The sad truth is that the best way to find a Hellbender in the wild can be extremely destructive to their habitat. Hellbenders often use the same rock over and over for 30 years or more, and it takes years for those rocks to settle in the riverbed and develop perfect Hellbender crevices below. Lifting up that perfect rock might give you a glimpse of a Hellbender, but it might destroy a Hellbender’s home forever. Instead, visit or volunteer at a local zoo or aquarium with a Hellbender display (most of these animals were hatched and raised in captivity and not collected from the wild). If you really want to see a Hellbender in the wild, contact someone doing responsible research and volunteer to assist with their fieldwork.

2. Never purchase a Hellbender or encourage a pet store or friend to capture or keep a Hellbender. Besides the fact that we don’t want to lose Hellbenders in the wild, they are extremely difficult to keep alive in captivity as they require specific water temperature and chemistry and can develop disease with sufficient stress.

3. If you are fortunate enough to live on or near a stream, leave some natural vegetation along the stream and reduce soil runoff. Avoid mowing all the way to the river bank and keep your cows/livestock out of the river if at all possible.

4. If you catch one while you are fishing, simply “Be kind, and cut the line.” Leave the Hellbender in the water and it probably has a better chance at surviving than you think.

5. Educate others – tell them Hellbenders harmless, very rare, and need our protection. Tell fisherman they eat mostly crayfish (not sport fish). Send them to the conservation websites such as, or

Further reading:

Jachowski, C. M. Bodinof, & Hopkins, W. A. (2013). Cryptobranchus alleganiensis alleganiensis (Eastern Hellbender). Aggregate Behavior Herpetological Review, 44 (2)

Bodinof, C.M., J. T. Briggler, R. E. Junge, T. Mong, J. Beringer, M. D. Wanner, C. D. Schuette, J. Ettling, & J. J. Millspaugh (2012). Survival and body condition of captive-reared juvenile Ozark Hellbenders (Cryptobranchus alleganiensis bishopi) following translocation Copeia, 2012 (1), 150-159 DOI: 10.1643/CH-11-024