Is It a Hellbender or Mudpuppy?

An Eastern Hellbender (click photo to enlarge).

A Mudpuppy (click photo to enlarge).

Of all of Ohio's salamanders, the Eastern Hellbender and Mudpuppy are perhaps the two most commonly misidentifed species. Both may be caught by anglers, and many people do not recognize that these are actually two distinct species. Local names for Hellbenders and Mudpuppies vary, including: waterdog, devil dog, allegheny alligator, snot otter, and grampus. Below are some diagnostic characteristics to help discriminate between the Eastern Hellbender and Mudpuppy.

1. Where in Ohio was the animal found? Mudpuppies are found throughout Ohio, while Hellbenders occur only in the Ohio River Watershed. If the animal you found came from the Lake Erie Watershed, then it is a Mudpuppy.
2. Does it have external gills? Adult Hellbenders do not have external gills. The external gills of Mudpuppies appear as bushy, red-colored appendages on either side of the head. Note that the gills may be very small in well-oxygenated habitats and can be difficult to see when the animal is removed from the water. If external gills are present, then it is a Mudpuppy.
3. Is the skin smooth and tight or loose and wrinkly? Hellbenders breathe through their skin, so they have wrinkly folds along the sides of the body to increase the surface area for gas exchange. Mudpuppies breathe mostly through their external gills (see number 2 above), so their skin is tighter against the body giving the animal a smoother appearance. If the skin is not noticeably wrinkly, then you probably found a Mudpuppy.
4. How big is it? The largest recorded size for a Mudpuppy captured in Ohio is over 14 inches, but most do not exceed 12 inches in total length. Hellbenders, such as the one pictured here, always grow larger than Mudpuppies and may reach up to 24 inches in total length.

(Note to anglers: The use of measuring tape - while typically avoided so as to not spoil your fishing stories - is a necessity in this case.)
Still not sure if it is a Hellbender or Mudpuppy? Send a photograph of the animal (especially showing the characteristics listed above) to me and I will do my best to identify the animal.

What to do if you should catch a Hellbender or Mudpuppy while fishing? Both animals are harmless. Simply remove the hook and release the animal back into the water. If a camera is handy (even if it is only a cell phone camera), snap a photo of the animal before release and send it to me.

The Eastern Hellbender is listed as an endangered species in Ohio and I would greatly appreciate any observations of Hellbenders in Ohio. Please contact me (GregLipps[at]

Last modified:
Thursday, January 19, 2012

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