Next, to bend space and time.

Hellbender (Cryptobranchus alleganiensis)

Hellbender (Cryptobranchus alleganiensis)

Cute Amphibian of the Week: January, 28, 2013

The hellbender has the distinct honor of being the largest salamander in the United States, growing as large as two feet long. It can be found in rocky, clear creeks and rivers, usually where there are large rocks for shelter. Its mottled appearance allows the hellbender to almost perfectly blend into its surroundings, making it quite the crafty salamander. Despite its name, this species is not a fan of warm water and strictly avoids water with temperatures above 68 o Fahrenheit/20 o Celsius.

The principal threat to this species is habitat degradation since it is a habitat specialist with little tolerance of environmental change. While it may seem like the sensitive type, do not be fooled; this species knows how to defend itself when push comes to shove. Hellbenders produce skin secretions that are likely unpalatable to predators and lethal in mice. At the current time the species is listed as near threatened by the IUCN.

Follow the Smithsonian National Zoo’s hellbender work at

Photo by Brian Gratwicke, Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute.

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How can dirt threaten a hellbender?

Joseph Oak, a design student from Carnegie Mellon, made this short animation about hellbenders for SCBI’s salamander conservation program. We decided to ask him a few questions about why he chose salamanders.

Q: Why did you decide to make a video about hellbenders?
A: The main reason I chose the hellbender was because of the threat it was facing. While the hellbender salamander may not be my favorite animal, I felt that the effects of siltation upon the hellbender’s populations had as much to do with them as it did us.

Q: Do you have a specific interest in wildlife? In salamanders? How did that interest develop?
A: Wildlife has always been fascinating to me; however, I’m sorry to say that I’ve never taken a great interest. The use of video and media to make information accessible and issues known has long been a passion of mine.

Q: What role do you think photos, video and animation plays in conservation?
A: I think that media plays a large part in wildlife conservation. Much of my appreciation for wildlife comes from programs like National Geographic and the Discovery Channel. I also feel that the documentation of these animals is incredibly important when sadly species do go extinct. Photos and videos then become the only sort of record of these species and a poignant reminder of the tragedy of extinction.

Lindsay Renick Mayer, Smithsonian’s National Zoo

The Hidden Jewels of Appalachia


“The Hidden Jewels of Appalachia” is a short film that uses compelling imagery to showcase Appalachia and raise awareness for declining Appalachian salamanders.  The Appalachian region of the eastern United States features an ancient mountain chain that serves as the world’s epicenter for salamander biodiversity.  These secretive creatures, ranging in size from two inches to more than two feet, are a keystone species at risk from a perfect storm of threats, including: development, climate change, mountaintop mining, invasive species, disease, transportation corridors, acid rain, pollution, and more.  Learn what these declining “canaries in the coal mine” are telling us about the state of our environment.

The Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute is working to become a leader in salamander conservation through innovative research looking at Plethodon species competition and climate change affecting the eastern hellbender (Cryptobranchus alleganiesis), as well as working to connect people to their local environment through public presentations, conducting field surveys and swabbing salamanders for disease.  For more information, please find Appalachian salamanders on Facebook.

–Joe Milmoe, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.