Call them snot otters, devil dogs, mud cats, mollyhuggers or Allegheny alligators but a team of Ohio conservationists are dedicated to making certain the endangered eastern hellbender is never called extinct.
The first release of human-reared hellbenders in Ohio occurred on Jun. 15, 2012 and marks an important step in the Ohio Division of Wildlife’s Conservation Plan to reverse the precipitous decline of the species by expanding their range into previously occupied streams to eventually establish multiple self-sustaining populations in Ohio.
The nine released hellbenders were reared in a dedicated hellbender facility at the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium from eggs collected in 2007 by the Oglebay Good Zoo (Wheeling, WV). They were released into a stream in eastern Ohio where hellbenders were once found. The stream was once severely impacted by pollution but has since recovered and is one of the highest quality waterways in the state.
Scientists from the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium and the Ohio Department of Natural Resources released the hellbenders after Zoo veterinarians performed health screenings and surgically implanted radio-transmitters to enable the animals to be tracked. Blood samples and skin swabs will be collected from the released hellbenders at the end of the summer and compared with those collected prior to the release. Veterinarians from the Columbus Zoo and the Wilds have been conducting research on the health of Ohio and West Virginia hellbenders since 2006. Data from this project will inform future hellbender reintroductions in Ohio.
The release of the hellbenders is the culmination of a partnership involving several Ohio institutions and agencies. Since 2006, the Ohio Hellbender Partnership has been regularly meeting to discuss hellbender conservation in the state. The partnership includes representatives of:
- Ohio Division of Wildlife
- Columbus Zoo and Aquarium
- the Wilds
- Oglebay Good Zoo
- Ohio EPA
- Jefferson County Soil and Water Conservation District
- Belmont County Soil and Water Conservation District
- United States Fish and Wildlife Service
- Toledo Zoo
- Akron Zoo
- Ohio University, Eastern
Larval hellbenders from an egg mass collected in Ohio in 2011 are currently being reared at the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium and will be used for future releases. The partnership’s capacity to rear hellbenders is being increased through renovations and expansions of facilities in Ohio zoos.
The eastern hellbender (Cryptobranchus alleganiensis alleganiensis) is the largest amphibian in Ohio and one of the largest salamanders in the world, reaching a total length of up to 25 inches and weighing nearly three pounds. With their wrinkled body and tiny eyes, the hellbender is supremely adapted to a life spent mostly under large rocks in rivers and large creeks where they feed on crayfish and take in oxygen through their highly vascularized skin.
A 2006-2009 survey of the eastern hellbender in Ohio determined an 82% decline in the relative abundance of individuals in streams where they were found during surveys conducted in the mid-1980s. In the Ohio watersheds where hellbenders remain, populations consist of only old, large individuals, indicating the lack of successful reproduction. Most remaining populations in Ohio do not appear self-sustaining and without intervention the hellbender will likely disappear from Ohio waterways.
The hellbender is an important part of Ohio’s natural heritage and their presence indicates clean water and healthy habitats. Causes of the hellbender’s decline include impoundments (dams), excessive siltation, pollution, disease, and persecution and collection. The species ranges from New York to Georgia and west to Missouri and were once found throughout the Ohio River drainage basin, including the Ohio River. Similar population declines have been noted by researchers throughout the hellbender’s range, and the species is considered threatened or endangered in most states.
Funding for this project was provided by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service through a State Wildlife Grant, donations to the Division of Wildlife’s Diversity Program, and the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium’s Conservation Fund.
Logo courtesy of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources