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Ohio Hellbender Project

Largest Salamander in the Americas

The Toledo Zoo, a member of the Ohio Hellbender Partnership (OHP), is rearing hellbenders for release into the wild of southeastern Ohio.

The eastern hellbender, Cryptobranchus alleganiensis, is a state-endangered species, with pollution and loss of habitat eliminating wild populations throughout much of their historic range. Hellbenders need clean and siltation free streams for survival. Some of these streams had become degraded through historical land use and pollution  Today, some of Ohio’s streams have recovered and can again support hellbender populations.

The Zoo helps by collecting eggs in these streams and transporting them back to the Zoo for rearing, where survivability of the young can be much higher than in the wild. Some of these young hellbenders are later released in the same creeks and streams in which they were collected, while others are used to repopulate streams that supported hellbenders in the past.

The hellbender rearing story

The Toledo Zoo recently constructed a new bio-secure hellbender rearing facility on grounds behind the reptile house.  Large windows on the front allow visitors to look in and observe the aquariums holding the hellbenders destined for release back into the wild. This facility has dozens of 40 gallon aquariums, each able to hold dozens of hellbenders (depending on size).    The Zoo also partnered with the Penta Career Center in Perrysburg, Ohio in a unique program that allows high school students to learn the husbandry of hellbenders.  The Zoo oversaw the development of an additional bio-secure room located at Penta that houses additional aquariums for hellbender rearing.  These hellbenders are also a part of the Toledo Zoo’s regular release program.      

Hellbender release

Every Fall, the Ohio Hellbender Partnership comes together for the release of hundreds of hellbenders, mainly from the Toledo and Columbus Zoo’s.

The hellbenders that are released were recovered several years prior as eggs and were held in captivity to increase their chances of survival and making it to the age of 2-3 years old. The waterways in which these salamanders are destined to go are carefully selected based on historic and current data.  

The OHP recognizes that it is a community effort to keep the hellbender habitat pristine and so locals are invited to partake in the release and talk to scientists to learn about the needs of hellbenders. Whithout the cooperation of landowners in hellbender habitat, none of this would be possible. 

 

Biologist Justin Grubb and educator Nicole Syrek use a scanner to scan the PIT tag in the hellbender before release.  Each hellbender gets an individual identification number so if it is ever recovered in the future, the origins of the animal will be known.

Biologist Kent Bekker hands hellbenders to biologists Justin Grubb and Greg Lipps as they snorkel around looking for suitable rocks before releasing the animals in to the stream.  This is to make sure the hellbenders get established and find territory.

Hellbender eggs are collected from underneath rocks in cold water streams in Southeastern Ohio.  These eggs are collected using a small hook and net then taken to the Toledo Zoo for captive rearing.

Hellbender Quick Facts

Largest salamander in the Americas and third largest in the World

Diet: small fish, crayfish, insects and other aquatic invertebrates

Habitat: rocky, fast moving clean streams with a lot of places to hide

Behavior: very territorial and somewhat nocturnal with males vigorously guarding eggs from predators

Lifespan: up to 100 years and takes 7 to 10 years for hellbenders to reach sexual maturaity

Range: unglaciated regions of southeast Ohio

Cool Fact: hellbenders breathe through folds of skin on their sides or ventral flanks