Who isn’t a little weird? Here at the Center for Biological Diversity, we celebrate weirdness in every one of its human and animal forms. After all, who’d really want to live in a world without weirdness?
Save the Weirdos: Hellbenders
In this installment of Save the Weirdos: the biggest salamander in North America, and certainly the best-named amphibian on the planet.
“Hellbender:” Even this animal’s common name is weird.
One story has it that hellbenders — a kind of freshwater salamander — were given this name by fishermen thinking they looked “like they crawled out of hell and were bent on going back.”
OK, so maybe they can be a little startling to encounter.
That’s partly because of their massive size: They’re the biggest amphibians in North America, growing up to more than 2 feet long and sometimes topping 4 pounds — nearly the size of a cat (hence their nickname “mud cat”) or even, maybe, a small dog (some call them “ground puppies”).
They look weird. Alright, we guess we can also see how some people might find hellbenders a little … scary. With their wide, flat heads and beady eyes; long, lumpy bodies; and wrinkly, rippling skin, maybe it’s understandable someone might describe them as overgrown four-legged slugs from the underworld.
And yeah, they do have a few conventionally creepy characteristics we’d rather not mention, like being nocturnal and highly solitary, breathing mostly through their epidermis, and boasting teeth sharp enough to cut through human skin (OK, we mentioned it).
So what if these “snot otters” have a slimy coating of mucus covering their bodies? Who cares that they hunt like eels, lurking under rocks till they lunge out at prey passing by (sometimes including fish as long as themselves — thanks to their enormous gullets — or even other hellbenders)?
Look a little closer. Hellbenders’ wide, upturned mouths make them almost seem like they’re smiling. The long, rippling flaps of skin on their sides are like ruffles edging a long, slimy, amphibious pillow. And look at those little feet, with their short, round toes — they almost look like hands waving as they paddle through the water!
Now listen. Even if you don’t see “ol’ lasagna sides” as … well … precious, you have to admit the hellbender is cool. And this huge, slimy salamander weirdo plays a critical role in delicate, diverse freshwater ecosystems across the eastern United States, from New York to Alabama. Unfortunately, both hellbender subspecies (eastern and Ozark) are endangered — their numbers are declining dramatically due to habitat destruction, pollution, disease and more.
Nerd out on more hellbender facts at the Center for Biological Diversity’s website.
Still need more proof of hellbenders’ hipness? Well, hell! Look — they even have their own music video.