• Photo courtesy John Groves
  • Photo courtesy John Groves
  • Photo courtesy John Groves

Hellbender Research

Hellbender FAQ

What does a hellbender look like?
Hellbenders are very long, measuring 12 to 29 inches. Their color ranges from drab brown to olive brown, with irregular black marks scattered on their backs and tails; their undersides are lighter, ranging from light brown to yellowish-orange. Hellbenders are soft and fleshy—their skins seem too loose for their bodies. Their bodies are somewhat flat, especially at the head, and the mouth is large with small, sharp teeth on both jaws. A smaller set of double crescent-shaped teeth are found on the roof of the mouth. The eyes are small, beady and unlidded.


Hellbender - Project History - 2011

For more than 20 years, biologists around the world have been worried about declining amphibian populations. Researchers working on every continent and in every habitat type have reported major problems in at least some amphibian groups. About one-third (33%) of the amphibian species we know about have declined to the point where they are regarded as threatened or endangered. While 60 percent of the remaining species appear to be in good shape for now, the status of the other 40 percent is uncertain. One of the problems is that we know very little about many amphibian populations, so it is hard to describe their overall health.

Major international and national conservation groups have made amphibian conservation their most important priority. They have asked zoos to focus on amphibian conservation—especially salamander conservation efforts in the United States.

The hellbender (Cryptobranchus alleganiensis) is a native salamander in need of such help. One of North America's largest salamanders, the hellbender depends on clean, cool, fast-moving mountain streams and rivers for habitat. It is found in three distinct populations in the eastern United States: one in the southern Ozark Mountains (C. a. bishopi); one further east, primarily in the Appalachian Mountains (C. a. alleganiensis); and a third, relict population (C. a. alleganiensis) in the northern Ozarks.


Hellbender - Current Status - 2015

The North Carolina Zoological Park (NC Zoo) is partnering with the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission, the United States Fish & Wildlife Service, Appalachian State University and many institutions to study the conservation ecology and genetics of hellbenders in the Appalachian Mountains. Supported by the North Carolina Zoological Society, retired Curator of Reptiles John Groves—sometimes accompanied by zookeepers from the Zoo's Streamside and Desert exhibits—has been making regular trips to western North Carolina to assist with this hellbender conservation project.

Project Objectives

  • Survey historical hellbender locations
  • Assess the abundance and the viability of each population
  • Look for evidence of successful reproduction and survival of juveniles
  • Identify possible causes of declines
  • Develop long-term monitoring processes
  • Study population genetics
  • Provide research opportunities for university students


Newest Hellbender articles...

Hellbender – Project History – 2011

Hellbender research has shown steep declines—some as high as 77 percent—among a few hellbender populations. The Appalachian population in the southeastern United States in particular has received little scientific attention. This may be because many... Read More

Hellbender – Current Status – 2015

Hellbenders are Federally listed as a “species of concern” and may be a candidate for listing as an endangered species. Human impacts like acid mine drainage, dam construction, siltation from farms, forestry, and housing development... Read More