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'Hellbenders' move into Maryland zoo

July 21, 2011 at 1:32 PM   |   Comments

BALTIMORE, July 21 (UPI) -- Giant salamanders known as hellbenders, and by less appetizing names such as snot otters or devil dogs, have a new exhibit at the Maryland Zoo, officials said.

A homely creature that hides under rocks and slimes its enemies when threatened, the hellbender is an important and valuable addition to the facility's collection, zoo officials said.

Two of the increasingly rare salamanders have taken up residence in Hellbender Country, a $200,000 exhibit opening as part of the Maryland Wilderness area, The Baltimore Sun reported Thursday.

"A huge component of the Maryland Zoo is the Maryland Wilderness," assistant curator Kevin Murphy said. "And a really big component is to work with our local species. The hellbender is arguably Maryland's most endangered animal species."

Hellbenders, Cryptobranchus alleganiensis, are North America's largest salamanders and the third biggest in the world.

They live mostly in Appalachian mountain streams from northern Alabama to New York state, where they feed on crayfish, earthworms and insects.

"It's a species that many people believe should be federally listed [as endangered], and I'm one of them," said Scott Smith, a wildlife ecologist with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. "And it's really hanging on by its claws."

The zoo says it hopes to raise the creatures' public profile.

"Most people haven't heard about hellbenders," Murphy said, "and they've got a really cool name."

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