Kenyon Kritters: Hellbenders
A word of caution: The following is semi-educational and may not appeal to audiences whose brains have turned to primordial ooze over the two days we’ve been on break. Rated SQ for squishy biology.
How’s it hangin’ homo sapiens! It’s me again, the Early Bird, singing you the sweet sultry melodies of Mother Nature. So listen up, because boy oh boy do I have a hit for you.
October is by far the angstiest time of year. There’s that nagging chill in the air, the looming threat of midterms and even worse ~parents~ on the wind, and prickly tensions and tempers from the nearing apocalypse of this election season. Sometimes, you just want to curl up under a craggy rock at the bottom of a river, crank up the AC/DC and watch the world burn through your beady lidless eyes. Well, I have some friends to fuel your stir –crazy teenage rebellion. Deep in the depths of the Kokosing are creatures so dark, so mysterious, and so freaky it seems like they must have crawled out of another world … the Underworld, that is.
That’s right: the HELLBENDERS are here!
No, that’s not the greatest punk band name of all time (except yes it is). Hellbender is the actual name of these floppy superstars. Reaching up to 2 feet in length and with an average lifespan of 30 years, they hold the record for the biggest, baddest amphibians in North America and the third largest in the world. Eastern Hellbenders occupy their own genus Cryptobranchus, (also a cool punk name) meaning ‘hidden gills’ within the fully-aquatic salamander family Cryptobranchidae, which includes their hulkier cousins the 5 foot Giant Salamanders of China and Japan. These river renegades have earned themselves many titles over the years, from the menacing ‘Hellbenders’ and ‘Devil Dogs’ to the slightly less flattering ‘Lasagna Lizards’ and ‘Snot Otters.’
Despite their resemblance to a pile of mud, Hellbenders are actually meticulously clean animals who prefer the finer, clearer water of shallow stream beds and rivers with ample rocks and logs for lurking. They may be grunge, but they’re not grimy. Most salamanders surface to breathe actual air and even spend some time climbing around on river banks but not these bad boys. They breathe by sucking in the pockets of oxygen created by whitewater currents crashing over their rocks. In fact, their lungs are more functional for buoyancy in the water column than breathing, and most of their respiration is done subcutaneously through their extensive folds of flabby skin. They’re so hardcore, they don’t even need lungs to survive. Legendary.
Hellbenders are professional-grade loiterers. They dig their cribs under a small pile of flat rocks and move very little for most of the year, waiting to crunch unsuspecting crayfish and minnows who wander too close to their gaping mouths. It’s a pretty sweet gig. Crayfish aren’t the sharpest claws in the creek, but to be fair Hellbenders are easy to miss since they look exactly like the rest of the river bottom. Hellbenders are masters of disguise, ranging in color from gray to dappled brown to yellowish green to black, but even without camouflage they’re tricky to spot because they like the nightlife, baby! Well, really their vision is so poor that they probably have a hard time telling between day and night as is, and so they experience life mainly through smell and touch. You gotta feel the music, man.
They may look pretty scary, but the Devil Dogs are all bark and no bite. Their main defense is the layers upon layers of slime coating every surface of their skin- hence the unfortunate alias ‘snot otter.’ Picking up a Hellbender is like holding a 5-pound squirming booger. The mucus is completely harmless, just nasty for things that would try and grab them like large fish, snapping turtles, and overzealous fans. If they don’t feel like signing tons of autographs, they’ll just slime you and head on out. Harsh, but effective.
The fall months are the peak of Hellbender activity because it’s the season of loving. If you’re looking to catch a glimpse, now is the best time to see one of these hard rockers crawling along the sand during the daytime looking for a hot date. The male invites a female into his carefully-arranged rock crevice where she lays her clutch of 200 to 400 eggs and he fertilizes them before chasing her out so he can get down to business and in some cases let another female in. Some boys can’t be tied down by one lover and will lure multiple females into their nest in a single year. The real Casanovas have been known to guard several thousand eggs at a time. What studs.
Papa Hellbenders are fiercely protective fathers. They often refuse food and rest to keep their brood safe, warm, and well-oxygenated for the whole three months until they hatch, and they’ll only nibble maybe 20 eggs. Hey, nobody’s perfect, especially when you haven’t eaten in weeks and your kids look like pearly little succulent grapes.
In the ’70s and ’80s Hellbender bands all across the Eastern U.S. sadly started breaking up from the stress caused by increased human degradation of their local haunts. Damming and agricultural runoff stirs up the sediment and too much silt fills in the rock cavities where Hellbenders breed, suffocating the eggs under excess dirt and debris muddying the water. Hellbenders are federally endangered species in Ohio and conservationists have been struggling to clean up waterways and get the band back together, but good news! The week before we all flooded back to the Hill, the Ohio Hellbender Partnership released 250 scrappy young Hellbenders into the Kokosing, some right here at our very own Brown Family Environmental Center. After decades of stony silence in our river bottoms the boys and back in town! Currently, these Beelzebabies are only 3 years old and 10 inches long, still in their garage band phase, but they’ll grow into big bad wrinkly adults and with any luck they’ll be raising hell in our river beds for years to come.
Rock on, Hellbenders. Rock on. *Cue epic guitar riff*