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8 September 2005

JSU Receives $39,925 Grant
to Study Hellbenders

Hellbenders can live nearly 30 years, grow up to 29 inches long, and weigh more than four pounds.

By Cicely Hayes
JSU News Bureau

They're big, ugly, can tip the scales at four or five pounds — and definitely do not make good pets. They're called by all sorts of local names including Mudpuppies (not to be confused with the other mudpuppy), Allegheny Alligators, Devil Dogs, Mollyhuggers, Mud Cats, and Snot-Otters. Only a scientist could love this slimy creature called a hellbender.

Two Jacksonville State University biology professors, Dr. George Cline and Dr. James Rayburn, recently received a $39,925 grant from the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Division, to study hellbenders (Cryptobranchidae).

Hellbenders are giant aquatic salamanders found in lakes, streams, creeks, and rivers from north Alabama to New York. They are long, slimy, and flat creatures that grow up to 29 inches long and can live nearly 30 years. They like clean, rocky water and favor a menu that includes crayfish, small fish, snails, and worms.

According to Cline, hellbender populations are declining rapidly and very few young adults can be found.  This suggests problems with reproduction. They're also dying at an alarming rate, and scientists want to know why. Cline said the purpose of the grant is to address those concerns.  He said data on hellbenders is difficult to obtain, as they are not easily found.

Their habitats are in north Georgia and Alabama (Tennessee River drainage), southern New York, southern Ohio and Illinois, western Kentucky and Tennessee, and northeastern Mississippi.

“These are really spectacular animals,” said Cline. Although experts say they are not the largest salamanders in the world, they're close.

According to, a website devoted to the creature, "Hellbenders have a flat body and head, a large, very keeled tail that helps to propel them through the water, and tiny eyes.  They have fleshy folds of skin along the sides of their body which help to take in oxygen from the water.  The arms and legs are very large and muscular and they have fingers on their rear feet and four on the front feet.  Hellbenders can range in color from dull brown or gray to bright orange or red."

The JSU team's biggest challenge will be finding the hellbenders. If you've sighted them, give the JSU researchers a call at 256-782-5798 or 256-782-5803.

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