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On a recent fishing expedition up on the Toccoa River up near Blue Ridge, Georgia a fisherman came up with a scary surprise of the slimy four legged kind.

Actually it was Hellbender. The Hellbender is North America’s largest salamander, growing as large as 29 inches long. Their Asian cousins, the Chinese Giant Salamander, can grow to almost 6 feet in length! How did these relatively harmless creatures come to be called by such a fierce sounding name?

Photo credit: NationalGeographic.com

Herpetologist C.M. Bogert theorized that early settlers thought that the animal looked like “a creature from hell where [it was] bent on returning.” The salamander, Cryptobranchus alleganiensis, (also known by equally colorful names such as snot otter, devil dog, and mudpuppy) primarily feeds on insects, earthworms, small fish, and crayfish. It does have tiny teeth which could break human skin, but they are not poisonous or aggressive.

Hellbenders make their homes in clear, fast-moving streams. Like many amphibians, these stream-dwellers primarily breathe through their skin, extracting oxygen from water.

However, they have been in decline over recent years due to unclean streams and disease. The Ozark Hellbender has been placed on the federal Endangered Species List, and while the Eastern Hellbender is declining in population, its population hasn’t been declining as rapidly. Kim Terrell from the Smithsonian National Zoo compares the Hellbender to a “canary in a coal mine”, since declining populations can be an indicator of decline in water quality, loss of habitat and poaching. Our slimy friends can live up to 30 years, and biologists are starting to track their health and habit over time through the use of microchips. Some zoos have also started captive breeding programs to help revive the dwindling population.