The Hellbender salamander. Cryptobranchus Alleganiensis. Mud Puppy. Devil Dog. Grampus. Mud Devil. Allegheny Alligator. No matter what you call it, the 2-foot salamander with a face only a mother could love has spawned two millennia's worth of fire-eating legends and folklore from here to Japan. It's the definition of badass. Here in the present day the Hellbender is an endangered species that inspired our search for a better way to brew beer.
A century ago, these wonderful little creatures could be found in just about any clean, cold, rocky, fast moving river or stream in the Appalachian region from New York to Georgia, and to the Ohio River Valley and the Ozarks. But Hellbenders are what's called "Habitat Specialists," meaning they can't survive outside their very specific habitat needs. For this reason the biggest threat to the Hellbender salamander is sedimentation, a hidden form of pollution that often leaves the water crystal clear while severely damaging the riverbed habitat below the surface. Silt, dirt and other runoff from roads, farms and construction enter local streams and rivers and fill in the space between the rocks in the riverbed, slowly eliminating the Hellbender's hidden habitat and driving out their food source. Sedimentation is kinda like the world's slowest, deadliest mudslide, often wiping out the majority of a river's inhabiting species.
The Hellbender may be an amphibian known to venture out of the water on occassion but it can't travel long distances over land to another habitat. Once sedimentation takes over they die off, never to return to that river. Humans directly contribute in other ways as well when they use rivers for recreation and disturb riverbeds by moving rocks and stirring up mud. Today, healthy Hellbender populations are only found at higher elevations in the mountains of National forests, well out of humankind's reach.
Freshwaters Illustrated filmed the short documentary below, the first ever high definition video of these hidden, nocturnal beasts. Sit back and watch and you will be amazed by their natural grace and beauty, and moved by the steep challenge Hellbenders face to survive. With the help of organizations like Freshwaters Illustrated, the Smithsonian National Zoo and others, they just may survive another millennia if we can protect their remaining habitats.