WV Wildlife: West Liberty University Raising Hellbenders for Reintroduction

Hellbenders can live upwards to over 50 years in the wild. (WCHS/WVAH)

Our beautiful streams here in the mountain state offer more than just a nice view.

They also teem with a diverse and fascinating mixture of wildlife.

One of the more interesting animals, with a very unique name, hasn't had it easy in our waters recently, though--the hellbender.

Joe Greathouse (PhD Biology), an assistant professor of biology at West Liberty University and Zoo director at Oglebay Zoo, says this animal is one of the most unique in the state. "This is the Williams Company swim-lab, or sustainable wildlife management lab, at West Liberty University--and what we're doing in the sustainable wildlife management lab is raising eastern hellbenders. Hellbender, we think, came from the Native Americans, felt like the way they moved between rocks--it's almost like a slow, slithering motion--was the way that somebody's soul would ride as it went into hell. It's the largest salamander in North America--it gets almost 3 feet long. They breathe entirely through their skin; all of their oxygen comes into their body through folds on the side of the body", said Greathouse.

Pretty fascinating--and these guys, which have been around since the dinosaurs, live right here in West Virginia. The problem--is that their habitat has been shrinking and their numbers have been falling. That's why the DNR has been helping with an ongoing project at West Liberty University--to replenish this prehistoric salamander to our streams.

"We go to those streams where we know they're still breeding, we collect the clutches of eggs and then we bring them back here to the lab. Raise them individually and try to grow them up to a size where they're less prone to be eaten by predators--and then we do re-introductions back to different streams and rivers in the state. Only half of one hellbender per 250 eggs survives to adulthood based on studies that have been done in the past. So, if we can raise them--and we raise them at about a 90% success rate, so in the wild, we see a very very low success rate. Here, we can get a 90% success rate where we may have 230 to 240 individuals out of a clutch of 250 eggs make it to three to four years old before we'd reintroduce them. The larger they get, the less likely they're to be preyed upon when we reintroduce them. But we need them to get to at least 100 grams--to where we can put radio telemetry transmitters in them. We try to keep the smallest transmitter in them as possible--it has to stay under four percent of their total body weight", said Greathouse.

Hellbenders need clean, cool water with a lot of boulders to hide under. This habitat may have changed over the years, but that wasn't the only problem for these giant salamanders. “We know that in the 1920s and 1930s, there were bounty hunts for hellbenders", said Greathouse.

Not good--especially considering that only 1 in 500 eggs are lucky enough to survive to adulthood in the wild. The hope here is clear, however--allow these hellbenders to grow large enough, and then release them back into our rivers and streams later this year and beyond. "Hellbenders are an indicator species--they're like our 'canary in the coalmine' for our streams and rivers--especially our cool water streams and rivers. If we have a lot of boulders there and hellbenders were there historically--if we start seeing hellbender populations decline in those areas, we know that there's probably something occurring to where perhaps there's disease, perhaps there is some pollution in the water that we need to address. I mean--this is part of our Appalachian heritage and realistically, one of our coolest animals in Appalachia. So, it's just a fascinating species to work with. When you're out in the middle of a stream and river in West Virginia, and you see a three foot long salamander walking through--that's just awesome to imagine that they're around here with us still", said Greathouse.


  • To visit the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources homepage, just click here.
  • Greathouse says that there's only 13 rivers left in West Virginia that have hellbenders. Back in the 1930's, over 30 rivers had them in the state.
  • The main reasons for the reduction in hellbenders here in West Virginia, according to Greathouse, are development--which has increased the amount of sediment in the streams, an amphibian fungal disease and the fact that bounties were placed on hellbenders back in the 1920s and 1930s.
  • Infant and larva survival is extremely low with hellbenders; this makes the species susceptible of becoming threatened, or endangered. According to Greathouse, only half of one hellbender per 250 eggs survives to adulthood based on past studies. In other words, on average, only 1 in 500 hellbenders survive long enough to be able to reproduce.
  • Inside the West Liberty University lab, however, where the young hellbenders don't have to worry about being preyed upon, finding food or large changes in water temperature, the success rate is at 90%!
  • Hellbenders have semi-permeable skin; this makes them vulnerable to pollutants in the water.
  • There's a 'slimy coat' on a hellbender's skin--this acts as a protective barrier against some diseases. It also reduces drag as they swim and enables them to slide underneath boulders.
  • Much like fish, hellbenders have a 'lateral line'--which allows them to pick up the movement of the current.
  • They don't see very well, but they can detect scent from far distances and can also feel vibrations under the water.
  • Greathouse says that hellbenders won't eat when it gets too warm. According to their research, the salamanders stop eating when the water temperature gets above 72 degrees here in West Virginia.
  • However, there's only two times of the year where they really need to eat; they can shut down their metabolism when the water temperatures turn too cold or too warm.
  • Warmer water can especially be detrimental, however, in regards to the oxygen content--or lack thereof; the warmer the water turns, the less oxygen it holds--this can be an issue to hellbenders.
  • Hellbenders simply don't move much in their life. According to Greathouse, adult females may only move about 300 yards within a stream for an entire year! Their research also showed that they may only move 15-20 times over the entire year!
  • According to Greathouse, hellbenders tend to cling to their original rock in a stream for most of their lifespan. All they really need is a boulder to stay under and wait for their food, mostly crayfish, to come drifting by.
  • Greathouse says that habitat restoration is also an option to help the hellbenders. Namely, planting trees alongside a stream to reduce sedimentation--or even creating artificial boulders out of concrete and wire mesh, which can be used as a 'home' for hellbenders.
  • Sedimentation buildup can cover up the gravel and cobble at the bottom on the stream; ultimately, this can decrease the habitat for their prey and also their young.
  • While some hellbenders still live along and near the Ohio River valley, they simply aren't as widespread on the western side of the state due to more development and resultant sedimentation along streams and rivers.
  • The 'real stronghold' in regards to population, according to Greathouse, is across the high-elevation mountain streams in eastern West Virginia. The variables that especially help the hellbenders here are how forested that region is, especially the National Forest, and the water quality--it's both cleaner and cooler.
  • Hellbenders have been recently reintroduced to the Cherry River across parts of Nicholas and Pocahontas Counties--where the habitat appears to be good for them. This river has large boulders, cooler and cleaner water flow from the higher mountains.
  • The native range for hellbenders generally extend from southern New York to northern Alabama and northern Mississippi--or roughly along and near the Appalachian Mountain range. The outer edge goes to western Kentucky and used to go to Illinois and South Carolina; however, the latter two states now have no hellbenders left.
  • There's also a disjunct population in central Missouri, or near the Ozark Mountains. At one point, that cluster was connected to the eastern population.
  • Given the loss of habitat, the prediction--over time--is for the hellbenders to mostly be confined to the high mountain regions only. This is due to lesser development there and more protected areas, like the Monongahela National Forest for example.
  • River otters and minks are generally considered the biggest predatory threat to hellbenders in the wild.
  • However, young hellbenders are at the mercy of about any animal--crayfish, fish and even other hellbenders for example.
  • Hellbenders mostly feed on crayfish, but occasionally will eat fish, too. They can help keep invasive crayfish species in check.
  • Their eating method is interesting. When something, that is capable of being consumed, walks in front of them--the hellbender will suck in water really fast back through it's gills. This means crayfish, fish, or anything else, will also be sucked back into the hellbenders mouth.
  • Hellbenders can live upwards of 50 years in the wild.
  • The folds, on the sides of their body, allows the salamander to have more 'surface area' to uptake oxygen. This is why the salamander is nicknamed 'old lasagna sides'--because it resembles lasagna (sorry for ruining your appetite)
  • Male hellbenders don't go looking for mates; the females pursue them during early September for reproduction.
  • The hellbender is the only salamander in the western hemisphere that reproduces with external fertilization--meaning the milk touches the eggs outside of the body.
  • Greathouse says once the hellbenders reach 3 to 4 years old, that will be the right time to reintroduce them to a stream or river.
  • West Liberty University researchers also want to place radio-telemetry transmitters in the hellbenders to track their movements. The specimens have to weight at least 100 grams to be able to do this.
  • Greathouse says the long-term goal is to see them make a rebound where their populations have declined. He also said that they'd like to create a self-sustaining population to streams that don't have them anymore. And most importantly, sustain the streams and rivers that still have them today.
  • Hellbenders can be thought of as an 'indicator species'--meaning if it's there and doing well, then the local ecosystem of the stream must be healthy, too.
  • Since these hellbenders were raised away from the wild for several years, they need to be 'trained' to understand to go away from predators. West Liberty researchers actually use mink and river otter puppets, along with their scents, to teach the hellbenders to go the opposite way and hide.
  • The DNR has supported West Liberty's Research from 2004 to currently.
  • West Liberty University has been doing this research and study since 2004.
  • The research initially started in the northern panhandle of the state, but since then--has moved further south and is now across the entire state.
  • A 'stress level study' on hellbenders found that wild hellbenders were more stressed than those in captivity. Greathouse says this makes sense, as the ones kept indoors don't have to worry about finding food, being preyed upon or fighting for their rock.
  • More eggs will be collected again from the wild during the 3rd week of September--this will allow the hellbender reintroduction program at West Liberty University to continue for several more years.
  • Later this year, West Liberty professors and students will be reintroducing between 30 and 50 hellbender individuals to streams and rivers across certain parts of West Virginia.
  • Greathouse and West Liberty University would like to thank numerous partners with this project and research--Williams Companies, The Good Zoo at Ogleby,
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