PROJosh More, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

10 Slimy Facts About Hellbenders

PROJosh More, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

North America’s biggest salamander is a reclusive crayfish-eater with a compressed body and some rather unflattering nicknames.

1. MOST OF THEIR LIVES ARE SPENT UNDER ROCKS.

Hellbenders have exacting real estate needs. Suited for a very specific habitat, they can only be found in clear, fast-moving streams with large, flat rocks at the bottom. An adult male hellbender will usually defend a territory of about 1000 square feet that is centered around its favorite rock—under which the animal sleeps.

2. HELLBENDERS ARE CLOSELY AKIN TO ASIA’S GIANT SALAMANDERS.

There’s just one recognized species of hellbender, which scientists have dubbed Cryptobranchus alleganiensis. Wild ones may be encountered as far north as New York State, as far south as Alabama, and as far west as Missouri.

The hellbender grows up to 29 inches long, making it earth’s third-largest salamander. Number one is the appropriately-named Chinese giant salamander (Andrias davidianus). Exceeding even some humans in size, this Asian monster can reach 5.9 feet in length and weigh 110 pounds. Right across the Sea of Japan lives the Japanese giant salamander (Andrias japonicus), which grows to be about 5 feet long and maxes out at around 55 pounds.

Together, these three juggernauts form the Cryptobranchidae family. Fossils reveal that the group once invaded Europe and western North America. The hellbender’s ancestors most likely evolved in Asia before migrating to the U.S. via land bridge.

3. THE SPECIES GOES BY MANY ALIASES.

“Hellbender” is an intense name for such a harmless amphibian. How did this word come about? Nobody knows. Perhaps—as herpetologist C.M. Bogert once wrote—early settlers thought that the animal looked like “a creature from hell where [it was] bent on returning.” Or maybe its wrinkled skin reminded someone of the tortures said to take place in Satan’s domain. Both theories seem plausible.

Hellbenders have gone by other nicknames as well, including devil dogs, mud-devils, lasagna lizards, and Allegheny alligators. Yet another nickname refers to their texture: Grasping a hellbender is quite difficult because of the slimy mucus that coats its skin, so they're sometimes known as snot otters.

4. HELLBENDERS MAINLY HUNT CRAYFISH.

Though they also feed on insects, earthworms, and small fish, crayfish represent 90 percent of a hellbender’s natural diet. Upon gulping one down, the salamander uses sharp, tiny teeth to pierce its shell. (These chompers can also break human skin.)

5. CONTRARY TO POPULAR BELIEF, THEY DON’T AFFECT GAME FISH.

USFWSmidwest, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

There are some unfortunate hellbender myths floating around out there. For instance, fishermen have long accused them of driving away bass and other game fish by eating their eggs—or even the fish themselves. However, scientists have yet to find any such foodstuff inside of a hellbender’s stomach [PDF].

Another common misconception is that the salamanders have venomous fangs. People who believe this often kill them on sight—even though this accusation has no merit. In fact, no one has yet discovered any amphibian with such a bite.

6. HELLBENDERS CAN DO WITHOUT THEIR LUNGS.

Like many amphibians, these stream-dwellers primarily breathe through their skin, extracting oxygen from water. This process is made easier thanks to folds running along their sides, which increase the skin’s surface area.

Hellbenders do have lungs, but they definitely aren’t vital organs. Consider this: As part of a 1967 experiment, both lungs were surgically removed from one individual [PDF]. The animal survived, and its ability to process oxygen was unaffected by the ordeal. So does this mean that a hellbender’s lungs are useless? Not quite. They may not be used for respiration, but the organs probably help regulate buoyancy underwater.

7. THEY’RE PREDOMINANTLY NOCTURNAL.

Nighttime is when these creatures do most of their hunting. Between dawn and dusk, hellbenders can usually be found hiding under rocks. On cloudy days, however, they tend to get a bit more active and may leave their haunts well before nightfall [PDF].

Come mating season, the amphibians get particularly bold. Most hellbenders reproduce in either August or September. During those months, they’re far more likely to be active in broad daylight—especially before noon.

8. AFTER MATING, IT’S THE MALE WHO GUARDS THE EGGS.

A male prepares to breed by digging a tunnel under some nearby rock. Once finished, he curls up inside and pokes his head out. Ideally, a passing female will spot him and swim on over. The male then guides her into the hole, where she’ll release anywhere from 150 to 450 eggs. As she lays them, he sprays semen all over the clutch, fertilizing it.

Following this, the male chases his mate away and proceeds to spend the next few weeks protecting their unborn offspring. Ordinarily, hatching takes place somewhere between 64 and 80 days later. By then, there’s a good chance that the father will have eaten a few of the eggs—though never more than 20 or 30.

9. THEY’RE FULLY AQUATIC.

Brian Gratwicke, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

If placed ashore by some disruptive human, hellbenders can crawl back into the river, but unlike many amphibians, they almost never leave the water voluntarily. In the water, the salamanders mainly get around by crawling over submerged rocks—though the animals are decent swimmers as well.

10. SADLY, HELLBENDER NUMBERS ARE FALLING FAST.

Two subspecies are out there—and they’re both in trouble. The Ozark hellbender (Cryptobranchus alleganiensis bishopi), native to southern Missouri and northern Arkansas, has grown frighteningly scarce. Recent estimates indicate that there may be as few as 590 individuals left in the wild. Since the 1980s, the Ozark hellbender population has gone down by roughly 75 percent.

Elsewhere, the eastern hellbender (Cryptobranchus alleganiensis alleganiensis) isn’t faring much better. Previously widespread throughout their New York State range, they now exist in only a few streams and rivers. Similar reports have been made about the animal’s fading presence in West Virginia, Tennessee, Missouri, and Georgia [PDF].

Why are these creatures dying out? Siltation is the main culprit. Whenever a forest is torn down, huge amounts of soil and sand are disturbed. These later get washed into nearby waterways—including the streams that hellbenders call home. Unwelcome sediments muddy up their habitat, bury their tunnels, and suffocate their eggs.

Still, hope remains. Zoos from Toledo to St. Louis have launched captive breeding programs designed to lend snot otters a helping hand. If all goes well, these efforts will rejuvenate our ailing hellbender populations with a surge of young, healthy sub-adults. Keep your fingers crossed.

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Mark Ralston, AFP/Getty Images
How a Hairdresser Found a Way to Fight Oil Spills With Hair Clippings
Mark Ralston, AFP/Getty Images
Mark Ralston, AFP/Getty Images

The Exxon Valdez oil tanker made global news in 1989 when it dumped millions of gallons of crude oil into the waters off Alaska's coast. As experts were figuring out the best ways to handle the ecological disaster, a hairdresser from Alabama named Phil McCroy was tinkering with ideas of his own. His solution, a stocking stuffed with hair clippings, was an early version of a clean-up method that's used at real oil spill sites today, according to Vox.

Hair booms are sock-like tubes stuffed with recycled hair, fur, and wool clippings. Hair naturally soaks up oil; most of the time it's sebum, an oil secreted from our sebaceous glands, but it will attract crude oil as well. When hair booms are dragged through waters slicked with oil, they sop up all of that pollution in a way that's gentle on the environment.

The same properties that make hair a great clean-up tool at spills are also what make animals vulnerable. Marine life that depends on clean fur to stay warm can die if their coats are stained with oil that's hard to wash off. Footage of an otter covered in oil was actually what inspired Phil McCroy to come up with his hair-based invention.

Check out the full story from Vox in the video below.

[h/t Vox]

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Bristly
A New Chew Toy Will Help Your Dog Brush Its Own Teeth
Bristly
Bristly

Few pet owners are willing to sit down and brush their pet's teeth on a regular basis. (Most of us can barely convince ourselves to floss our own teeth, after all.) Even fewer pets are willing to sit calmly and let it happen. But pet dental care matters: I’ve personally spent more than $1000 in the last few years dealing with the fact that my cat’s teeth are rotting out of her head.

For dog owners struggling to brush poor Fido’s teeth, there’s a slightly better option. Bristly, a product currently being funded on Kickstarter, is a chew toy that acts as a toothbrush. The rubber stick, which can be slathered with doggie toothpaste, is outfitted with bristles that brush your dog’s teeth as it plays.

A French bulldog chews on a Bristly toy.
Bristly

Designed so your dog can use it without you lifting a finger, it’s shaped like a little pogo stick, with a flattened base that allows dogs to stabilize it with their paws as they hack at the bristled stick with their teeth. The bristles are coated in a meat flavoring to encourage dogs to chew.

An estimated 80 percent of dogs over the age of 3 have some kind of dental disease, so the chances that your dog could use some extra dental attention is very high. In addition to staving off expensive vet bills, brushing your dog's teeth can improve their smelly breath.

Bristly comes in three sizes as well as in a heavy-duty version made for dogs who are prone to ripping through anything they can get their jaws around. A Bristly stick costs $29 and is scheduled to start shipping in October. Get it here.

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