© Bruce McNitt/Panoramic Images (Virginia)

Eastern Hellbender

The eastern hellbender is a large, stout-bodied, fully aquatic salamander. Its color is usually brown with darker (or lighter) markings on the back, but can range from gray, to yellowish brown to almost black. The belly is lighter and sparsely spotted if at all. It has a large, flattened head with small and widely separated eyes. Fleshy skin folds run down both sides of the body ending at a keeled tail. The toes have a rough pad that allows for traction on slick river rocks. The entire skin surface is photosensitive, especially on the tail. Juveniles will lose their external gills when they reach between 4 and 5 inches long (approximately 18 months of age). Hellbenders are known to live to 30 years in the wild and over 50 years in captivity.


Eastern hellbenders occupy the Susquehanna River drainage in southern New York and Pennsylvania, and large portions Missouri, Ohio, and Mississippi River drainages from western Pennsylvania, southern Ohio, extreme southern Indiana, most of West Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee, northern Alabama and Georgia, western North Carolina and Virginia. In Virginia, hellbenders are found in the mainstem and tributaries of the New River drainage and in the Clinch, Powell, and Holston River tributaries of the Upper Tennessee River.


Eastern hellbenders are completely aquatic. They prefer clear, fast-flowing, well-oxygenated streams and rivers. The stream bottom should contain many large flat boulders, logs, and debris. In Virginia, hellbenders have been observed in streams as small as 5 meters and rivers over 100 meters wide. Because of their preference for clean streams and rivers, hellbenders serve as indicators of stream health. The presence of young and adults is synonymous with good water quality.


Hellbenders feed primarily on crayfish. They have also been known to eat insects, snails, minnows and worms.

More Information

Virginia Dept of Game and Inland Fisheries’s Hellbender website,

Virginia Fish & Wildlife Information Service: Eastern Hellbender

Virginia Wildlife Action Plan

NatureServe Explorer: Eastern Hellbender

Copyright © 2023 NatureServe. All Rights Reserved.