Population declines of a long-lived salamander: a 20+-year study of hellbenders, Cryptobranchus alleganiensis


Accurate assessment of whether long-lived species are stable or declining is challenging. Life history characteristics such as delayed maturity result in relatively slow population responses to perturbations, so data should be collected across a relatively long time span. Because differential effects on age classes can be important, studies should also examine potential changes in the population's age structure. Moreover, multiple populations should be studied to indicate whether changes are regional or are restricted to local populations. We incorporated all three factors (long duration, multiple populations, age structure data) into our study of the conservation status of a long-lived aquatic salamander, the hellbender, Cryptobranchus alleganiensis. Over the 20+ years of this study, populations of hellbenders declined by an average of about 77%. This decline was characterized by a shift in size (age) structure, with a disproportionate decrease in numbers of young individuals. The change in density and age structure was consistent for populations in five rivers and for two subspecies (C. a. alleganiensis and C. a. bishopi), indicating that the decline is not restricted to one or two local populations. For the population with the most extensive data, the decline had clearly begun by the 1980s and there was a significant decrease in body condition over the period of the study. It is not known whether population declines for hellbenders have a single cause or whether each population has experienced independent declines.



Document Type





hellbender cryptobranchus alleganiensis, long-lived species, long-term studies, amphibian decline, recruitment

Publication Date


Journal Title

Biological Conservation