Sunday, August 22, 2010
The hellbender is North America's largest salamander, and I'll argue, has one of the most badass names in all of nature. I've heard it called a "mud devil" and a "ground puppy," but it is also called a "devil dog" and, my funny favorite, a "snot otter." Individuals of this species can grow as long as 29 inches but average around 15 inches. In general, they are nocturnal, crawling along a silty, rocky riverbed to hunt small fish, tadpoles, toads, crayfish, and even other hellbenders and water snakes! During the day you can find adults defending their home rock and territory. They have lungs but don't really come out onto land much, preferring the water and taking in oxygen through their skin.
There are some populations that remain healthy, but the hellbender is listed as Near Threatened by the IUCN (that's the International Union for Conservation of Nature) and is close to qualifying for Vulnerable status. Like many other species, the decline of the hellbender is due to habitat loss and degradation - runoff contaminated with pesticides and pollutants are not good for salamanders. The Ozark Hellbender, in particular, has seen drastic population declines and is listed as Endangered in Missouri and may soon be listed as Endangered federally.
According to this short but interesting article a friend of mine posted, scientists are now cryopreserving the spiral-shaped hellbender sperm. Since this species can live up to 30 years (by the way...wow!) there are mostly older individuals left in the wild. Some of these individuals are being collected, "milked," and their little swimmers cryopreserved.