The Spotted Salamadner (Ambystoma maculatum) is a common species of mole salamander. Photo credit: T. Travis Brown.
I have been asked some variation of this question multiple times over the past several years. Sometimes the "hellbender" is found in a barn, on a basement floor, crawling across a driveway, or occasionally in a pond. The common denominator is always that someone has found a salamander, and they are concerned it is an Eastern Hellbender that needs help.
I appreciate this concern. I am glad to see that people have become more aware of the existence of the Eastern Hellbender and that it is something worth helping. The Eastern Hellbender is an endangered species in Indiana, and we always welcome reports from concerned citizens. However, the Eastern Hellbender is a very rare species in Indiana and is uncommon throughout most of its range in the eastern United States. The species has been declining in Indiana over the past several decades and is now known only from the Blue River in Washington, Harrison, and Crawford Counties. For this reason alone, it is unlikely that anyone would find a Hellbender on their property.
However, another equally important reason that it is unlikely a Hellbender involves the species biology. The Eastern Hellbender is fully aquatic and lives exclusively in rivers and streams. Unlike most amphibians, its primary means of respiration is by absorbing oxygen directly from the water through its skin. One adaptation Hellbenders have evolved to help with oxygen absorption is the development of wavy skin-folds along the sides of their bodies. These skin-folds provide greater surface area for oxygen absorption. Hellbenders have lungs, but they do not function well enough to allow them to survive extended periods of time on land. Hellbenders have been found on land immediately next to rivers and streams, but this is rare and is generally considered an anomaly.
While this rules out finding them on land away from rivers and streams, what about ponds and lakes? Hellbenders typically prefer clean, cool, swift flowing rivers and streams with a high oxygen content. These conditions are not typically found in ponds and lakes, and would make it unlikely that hellbenders would willingly reside in them. Moreover, these water bodies are usually landlocked with no close access from rivers and streams, and since hellbenders do not like to travel overland, they will likely never encounter a pond or lake.
There are two unlikely possibilities that might result in a Hellbender being found in a pond or lake. The first would be if someone captured a hellbender and moved it there. The second would be a pond or lake owner that lives in the floodplain of a river containing Hellbenders. Hellbenders do occasionally get dislodged by flooding and washed downstream. A large flood has the potential, however unlikely, to wash a Hellbender into a nearby pond. I am unaware of this ever happening, but it is a possibility.
So if you haven't found a Hellbender, what have you found? If you found your salamander on land, it is very likely one of a group of salamanders known as mole salamanders. Mole salamanders are common throughout most of Indiana. They typically breed in ponds in the spring and then hide under logs or bury themselves underground. They are commonly found during spring breeding migrations and are frequently seen in large numbers. They often times find themselves wandering onto our properties and getting stuck in window wells or hiding themselves under rocks, firewood, or in our barns.
If you found your salamander in the water then it could be either the aforementioned mole salamander or a Common Mudpuppy. Mudpuppies are commonly confused with hellbenders and do live in ponds, wetlands, and creeks. Like the Hellbender, they are fully aquatic and don't go on land except in very rare circumstances. Mudpuppies have large, fluffy gills behind their heads, which Hellbenders do not have. Mudpuppies also lack the skins folds along the sides of their bodies.
While most people will go their entire lives without ever seeing a Hellbender, if you live in the right areas it is a possibility. If you think you have seen a Hellbender, then please take a photo and let us know by visiting our Hellbender Reporting Webpage below. We are always happy to help.
Hellbender ID - video, The Education Store, Purdue Extension resource center
HelptheHellbender.org, Purdue Extension
Help the Hellbender: North America's Giant Salamander, The Education Store
Salamanders of Indiana, The Education Store
Appreciating Reptiles and Amphibians, The Education Store
Nick Burgmeier, Research Biologist and Extension Wildlife Specialist
Purdue Department of Forestry and Natural Resources