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Jeff Briggler holding a hellbender
Bonnie Chasteen

Into the Water With a Hellbender Researcher

Publish Date

Nov 01, 2019

Hellbenders are big, wrinkly, water-dwelling salamanders. They’re also known as snot otters, devil dogs, and grampus. Why such bad names? “Well, they ARE very slimy, and some people used to think that catching one brought bad luck,” said Jeff Briggler, who studies hellbenders for the Missouri Department of Conservation. This fall, Xplor jumped in with Jeff to check on some hellbenders in an Ozark stream.

Xplor: Why do you check on hellbenders in the fall?

Jeff: That’s when the boys start making nests and the girls start filling up with eggs. It’s a good time to see how they’re doing.

Xplor: The boys build nests?

Jeff: Yep, they’ll dig out a nice, safe hollow under a big rock where a girl hellbender will enter and lay her eggs — usually two strands of 100 to 350.

Xplor: What happens after that?

Jeff: The girl leaves, and the boy stays to guard the eggs. They hatch in four to six weeks, and then he guards the hatchlings until they leave the nest, usually in late winter or early spring.

Xplor: Wow — so it’s dad who guards the nest and babies!

Jeff: Yep, and dad can be very protective. If I try to reach into a nest with eggs, he might bite me.

Xplor: Does it hurt?

Jeff: Yes! Hellbenders eat mostly crayfish, so they need lots of teeth to crunch through those stiff shells. They have two rows of teeth on top, and one row on the bottom.

Xplor: Do you get bitten a lot?

Jeff: Nope, not very often. I always handle the hellbenders very gently, and they seem to know I don’t mean them any harm.

Xplor: Why do you study hellbenders?

Jeff: Well, it IS a lot of fun. I get to use cool gear and spend the day in the water. Also, it’s fun to hold the hellbenders while I’m measuring them and swabbing them for diseases. But mainly, hellbenders are in trouble.

Xplor: What kind of trouble?

Jeff: Mostly habitat trouble. When people dig or build in Ozark rivers, it makes the water silty. When sediment settles on top of hellbender eggs, it can kill them. It’s my job to keep an eye on the hellbenders we study, and sometimes I DO take a few eggs for our restoration program.

Xplor: Restoration program?

Jeff: Yes! We have two different kinds of hellbenders in our state — the Ozark and the eastern hellbender — and both are slipping away from us, so to speak. The Missouri Department of Conservation, the St. Louis Zoo, and lots of other folks are working together to help raise hellbenders from eggs in indoor  places. After the eggs hatch and the larvae grow into young adults, we tag them and release them into the streams where their eggs came from.

Xplor: Sounds pretty cool! Is it working?

Jeff: We’ve tagged and released a little over 8,000 youngsters, and we know some of them are surviving. I will be really excited the day I find a captive-raised dad defending a nest of eggs in the wild.

Xplor: How do you know which hellbenders were raised inside and which are wild?

Jeff: We’ve tagged every hellbender we’ve found and every hellbender we’ve released from the zoo or the hatchery with a digital number that we can scan when we recapture them. It’s a pretty slick system!

Xplor: Can Xplor readers see hellbenders in the wild?

Jeff: I’d rather they didn’t try to. Moving rocks in Ozark streams can destroy nests or even kill the hellbenders themselves. The best place to see hellbenders is at the St. Louis Zoo in their herpetarium. That’s a fancy word for where amphibians and reptiles are kept.

Xplor: What are some things Xplor readers can do to help Show-Me snot otters survive and thrive?

Jeff: Probably the best thing is to learn more about them. These supercool critters can breathe through their skin and live up to 35 years. Even if we don’t often see them, it’s fun knowing that these big, slimy, wrinkly, crayfish-crunching giants are living and nesting under the rocks in our beautiful Ozark streams. The other thing, of course, is to avoid disturbing rocks in Ozark streams.

Xplor: One last question: Why are snot otters so slimy?

Jeff: They’re only super slimy when they’re feeling super threatened, like when a mink or an otter is trying to eat them. Then they ooze a yucky slime that most predators, including a few people I know, find absolutely disgusting!

Xplor: Eew! That’s both gross and amazing! Thanks, Jeff!

Visit the St. Louis Zoo’s hellbenderpage at short.mdc.mo.gov/ZQY.

Fun Facts

  • Missouri is the only state that is home to both the eastern and the Ozark hellbender.
  • At around 24 inches long, the eastern hellbender is the largest salamander in North America.
  • Hellbender skin is sensitive to light, which helps the hellbender keep all its body parts safely hidden under rocks.
  • Hellbenders have big heads and mouths, but their eyes are tiny.