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Gems of Arkansas Series, Part II: The Ozark Hellbender Salamander

image of a yellow-brown ozark hellbender salamander
Encyclopedia of Arkansas. Photo courtesy of Stanley E. Trauth.

This blog series is inspired by the exhibition: Cross Pollination: Martin Johnson Heade, Frederic Church, Thomas Cole, and Our Contemporary Moment. Inspired by the museum’s beloved collection of Martin Johnson Heade’s Gems of Brazil, this interdisciplinary exhibition draws connections and comparisons between artists who all share an intense appreciation for the systems of nature but present it from very different perspectives. From large paintings of vast landscapes to work that shows the miniscule details of shimmering wings, guests will undoubtedly draw connections between the “fragile web of relationships that sustain our environment.” It is in this spirit that we are pleased to present Gems of Arkansas, an environmental journey exploring the places, animals, and, of course, gems, that make Arkansas such a unique place.

image of eleven point river in arkansas
Eleven Point River. Wikipedia; photo by Charlie Llewellin.

The beauty of Arkansas is that discoveries can be found everywhere. This is especially true if you find yourself wandering along the shores of Randolph County’s Eleven Point River in northeastern Arkansas. It’s entirely possible that you could spot, from the corner of your eye, the very slimy, flat, jelly-like body of the rare Ozark hellbender, whose lineage can be traced back to the age of dinosaurs. The name “hellbender” sounds like a description of a magical monster from a Harry Potter book, but amazingly, it is actually the name of an aquatic salamander found only in southern Missouri and northern Arkansas. With a face that only a mother could love, this creature has been on the verge of extinction for many years now, prompting its listing on the Endangered Species list in 2011 and the start of a successful breeding program at the St. Louis Zoo.

Ozark hellbender salamanders are unique for their large size, growing up to two feet in length. Their flattened bodies allow them to move through fast-flowing streams and to find cover under large stones. They have a very long life span—up to 30 years in the wild. They are nocturnal creatures and although they do have lungs, they rely on thousands of capillaries found in their skin to get oxygen from the water. This puts them in the unique, although somewhat undesirable, position of having the ability to let us know when water quality is problematic, as it makes them very susceptible to water pollution.

There are various theories about the reasons for their declines, but one of the most commonly held thoughts is that changes in their habitat are affecting the consistent levels of oxygen, temperature, and water flow that they require to maintain their health. These changes are a result of sedimentation, nutrient and toxic runoff, and disturbances to the rocks used by hellbenders for nesting and to obtain protective cover. There is also a fungal infection that has been detected in all Ozark hellbender populations in Missouri.

image of a dark brown ozark hellbender salamander
Ozark hellbenders are a subspecies of hellbender found only in Arkansas and Missouri. Photo by USFWS; Jill Utrup.

But there is hope for these fascinating creatures. Their addition to the Endangered Species list means that it is illegal to kill or harm them or trade them internationally and prioritizes funding for research and conservation. To that end, the St. Louis Zoo has been breeding the Ozark hellbenders successfully, releasing them into the wild. As recent as 2017, the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission released 100 hellbenders to the Eleven Point River.

While we do not have any Ozark hellbender salamanders at Crystal Bridges, we do have an abundance of skinks. These small creatures are actually lizards and can be found sunning themselves on rocks or scuttling across the Art Trail.


Written by Samantha Best, outdoor interpretation specialist.


Read more from the Gems of Arkansas Series: 

Part I: Let’s Talk Diamonds

Part III: The Tallgrass Prairies

Part IV: The Ozark Big-Eared Bat