Herpetology/Salamanders

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This page contains information on salamanders on the Herpetology List. For more general information about the event, see Herpetology.

Order Caudata/Urodela (salamanders)

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Family Cryptobranchidae (hellbenders)

The Family Cryptobranchidae is part of Suborder Cryptobranchoidea (primitive salamanders.) There are three extant species in this family split into two genera:

  • Cryptobranchus - 1 species: C. alleganiensis (Hellbender
  • Andrias - 2 species: A. davidanus (Chinese Giant Salamander), A. japonicus (Japanese Giant Salamander)
Alternate names Called unflattering names like mud devil, devil dog, and ground puppy
Etymology Their name inicates their gill slits, one of their paedomorphic features. Cryptobranchidae came from the Greek words kryptos which means "hidden" and branchion which means "gill".
Physical Appearance Members of this family have flat heads, wrinkled bodies, and paddle-shaped tails. Their head is large and set off from the body by a slightly distinct neck. Hellbenders have small eyes situated on top of the head which lack lids. This family posess extremely wrinkled chins with a well-developed gular fold. Their toes are thick and blunt and have gill slits located on the sides of the head. Because this family has bodies and heads that are dorsoventrally compressed, they are able to wedge themselves under rocks.

Color: The body is usually dark grey or brown with irregular dark spots along the back.

Size/Weight: Hellbenders are the largest of salamanders. Their average size is 29-40 cm but they can grow up to 74 cm.

Similar Species Identification: Hellbenders vs. mudpuppies - hellbenders are easily distinguished by their lack of external gills.

Anatomy + Physiology: Hellbenders absorb oxygen from the water through its skin- the folds in the skin maximize the surface area. Hellbenders rarely use their lungs since they do not often leave the water. An experiment showed that a hellbender that had it's lungs surgically removed was able to survive without them. Young individuals have gills, which they lose after about 18 months. However, they retain one set of gill slits. Shared Synamorphies:

  1. Fusion of first hypobranchials and first ceratobranchials
  2. Fusion of tibialis muscles
  3. Eggs enclosed in paired sacs
Life Cycle The lifespan of hellbenders are uncertain. Captive individualshave lived up to 29 years, but a recent study suggests that hellbenders may live for over 50 years in the wild.

This family utilizes external fertilization. The females lay eggs underwater in 2 long strings (<200 eggs each) that attach to rocks. Males exhibit parental care by guarding fertilized eggs in underwater nests that they have excavated. Breeding season begins in late August or early to mid-September and can continue for as long as 3 months, until as late as the end of November. Males commonly mate with more thanone female in their den. Sometimes, the secondary males are allowed into the head male's mating den.

Genus Andrias undergoes only partial metamorphosis and lives as a paedomorphis.

Ecology, Habitat and Diet Predators:Adults have few predators but may be eaten by raccoons, minks, and river otters. Juveniles have many predators, including fish, turtles, water snakes, and other hellbenders.

Habitat: Live exclusively in fast-flowing streams. They can be found slowly crawling across the bottoms of clear, silt-free mountain streams and live under large rocks or boulders that are partially buried in the cold, fast-flowing streams. These rocks provide protection from predators and hellbenders could abandon a habitat if the rocks are disturbed.

Diet: Hellbenders are carnivorous. They eat crayfish, small fish, tadpoles, other hellbenders, toads, and water snakes. The hellbender can eat an animal that is almost as big as itself due to its large, gaping mouth. They employ asymmetrical suction feeding, wherein only one side of the mandible is depressed at a time.

Behavior and Locomotion Hellbenders only occasionally leave the water which means they rarely use their lungs as a result. Hellbenders are generally nocturnal and spend most of the day under rocks on the riverbed. They emerge at night to hunt. After having covered 30-60 feet and eaten up to 4 crayfish in a night, the salamander returns to its home rock by morning. Adults are extremely territorial, usually chasing off any daytime visitors.

Perception: Hellbenders use sensory nodes on their heads and bodies to detect minute changes in water pressure, enabling them to find their prey.

Conservation Status and Efforts Near-Threatened due to habitat loss and degradation.
  • Ozark hellbenders are particularly imperiled, with drastic population declines documented in the late 1980-90’s. In 2011, it was listed as endangered federally as per the Endangered Species Act.
Distribution Their geographic distribution is limited to the eastern United Sates, central China, and Japan. In the United States, they can be found from southern New York to northern Alabama. The Eastern hellbender is distributed throughout the Applachian region. The Ozark hellbender is limited to a small part of southeast Missouri and northeast Arkansas.
Miscellaneous Information Life History: Fossil cryptobranchids are known from North America (with the oldest known from the Paleocene), Europe (oldest known from the Oligocene) and Asia (from the Pleistocene). Some fossilized Andria are longer than two meters!

Human Interaction: Members of the two Asian species (Chinese Giant Salamander and Japanese Giant Salamander) are eaten by people.

Family Dicamptodontidae (giant salamanders)

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Family Proteidae (mudpuppies and water dogs)

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Family Rhyacotritonidae (torrent or seep salamanders)

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Family Amphiumidae (amphiumas)

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Family Sirenidae (sirens)

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Family Ambystomatidae (mole salamanders)

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Family Salamandridae (newts)

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Family Plethodontidae (lungless salamanders)

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Genus Desmognathus (dusky salamanders)

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Genus Plethodon (woodland salamanders)

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Genus Ensatina

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Genus Aneides (green/climbing salamanders)

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Genus Batrachoseps (slender salamanders)

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Genus Hydromantes (web-toed salamanders)

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Genus Hemidactylium (four-toed salamanders)

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Genus Gyrinophilus (spring salamander)

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Genus Pseudotriton (red and mud salamanders)

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Genus Eurycea (brook salamanders)

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Genus Typhlomolge (Texas and Blanco blind salamanders)

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