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Herp Highlight #5: Eastern Hellbender

The frigid waters of Virginia’s mountains seem  inhospitable for any cold-blooded critter, but even here herptiles find ways to survive the harsh temperatures. Our Mountain Cove Habitarium is home to a very special and very rare amphibian: the Eastern Hellbender.


The Eastern Hellbender (Cryptobranchus alleganiensis alleganiensis) is a large salamander that can only be found in the cool streams of the mountains. And when I say large, I mean they are the largest salamanders in the United States!


These salamanders are entirely aquatic, typically found in clear, fast running streams. They prey upon small fish, worms, insects and their favorite food, crayfish, which they snap up with powerful jaws. Typically slow moving, Hellbenders spend most of their day hidden under rocks, waiting for prey. Their entire body is photosensitive (able to sense light), so the Hellbender is aware if any part of its body is uncovered.


Sadly, like most amphibians, the Hellbender is highly sensitive making it extremely susceptible to pollution and sedimentation. They absorb toxic substances through their skin during respiration which has had a profound impact on their populations. Today the Eastern Hellbender is a federal species of concern, and conservationists are working to protect the few rivers where these rare amphibians can still be found.


So stop on by the museum and check out one of Virginia’s lesser known river-dwellers! Learn what you can do to reduce the stress put on these amazing amphibians and help bring back the Eastern Hellbender!


Fun Fact:

The Hellbender’s skin may look wrinkly and rough but they are actually extremely slimy and slippery. The thick mucus that covers their skin has led to their nickname, the “snot otter”!

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