Breeding Eastern hellbenders in captivity isn’t for the faint of heart.
For one thing, these odd-looking animals, also called “water dogs” or “snot otters,” are notoriously difficult to keep in captivity. For another, they’re relatively hard to find in the wild, including North Carolina where they’re protected and listed as a species of special concern, so obtaining animals for captive breeding can be quite difficult.
But those factors aren’t deterring biologists with the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission. Working cooperatively with the N.C. Zoo, the Wildlife Commission is trying to raise to sexual maturity 10 juvenile hellbenders that it received from a Texas zoo in June, with the ultimate goal of breeding them in captivity to create more hellbenders.
Biologists are not interested in propagating hellbenders to augment wild populations, but rather to meet the increasing demand for these large, aquatic salamanders as educational and display animals for qualified state agencies, universities and other facilities.
“The Wildlife Commission has no plans or intentions to breed hellbenders for release into the wild,” said Lori Williams, a mountain wildlife diversity biologist with the Commission’s Division of Wildlife Management. “We are simply trying to eliminate the need for any facility to yank a hellbender from the wild for display purposes.
“There is no need for that practice anymore if captive stock is available.”
Currently, the 10 juvenile hellbenders are sharing two aquariums set up at the Commission’s Conservation Aquaculture Center, which is located at the Marion State Fish Hatchery in McDowell County. Staff with the Divisions of Wildlife Management and Inland Fisheries are measuring, weighing and photographing the young animals twice a year. In another year or so, they will place the growing hellbenders in a secure, concrete raceway at the hatchery.
Commission staff began modifying the raceway in July to ensure that conditions will be right for hellbenders to breed and nest when they mature.
“Some of the modifications include the addition of baffles to break up line of sight,” said Peter Lamb, the Commission’s technology center biologist. “This will help keep the animals from feeling over crowded. We will also add a substrate similar to what is found in their natural environment with places for the animals to hide and a set of hinged lids to provide shade and protection from predators.”
Because hellbenders grow more quickly in captivity than they do in their native mountain waters, Williams expects that the young animals will reach sexual maturity by 2015. A lot is riding on the next three years, Williams said. She is hopeful, yet realistic, about the captive-breeding program’s long-term success.
“No one has ever successfully bred Eastern hellbenders in captivity, although many have tried for many years,” Williams said. “It was just last year that a team in the Midwest finally got it right with the Ozark hellbender, having the first-ever successful captive-breeding event with that species.
“We’re hoping for similar results with the Eastern hellbender.”
Their current location at the Marion facility marks a return home of sorts for the young hellbenders, which started out as an egg mass removed from a stream in the French Broad River system in North Carolina in 2010. The egg mass was taken to the Fort Worth Zoo in Texas for a research project looking at the effects of two organic chemicals found in two river systems on growth and reproductive organs. More than 200 baby hellbenders hatched from the clutch, leaving the Ft. Worth Zoo with a large stock of leftover hellbenders that needed a new home, because they couldn’t be released into the wild.
Several agencies and other institutions accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums received the leftover hellbenders, with the Commission being one of three in North Carolina that had the proper permits, expertise and equipment to care for the hellbenders. The Wildlife Commission is the only North Carolina facility attempting a captive-breeding project. The other North Carolina facilities receiving hellbenders will use them only as display and educational animals.
While the Fort Worth Zoo provided the hellbenders to start the project, the N.C. Zoological Society was instrumental in the project’s initial success. John Groves, curator of amphibians and reptiles at the N.C. Zoo in Asheboro, provided Commission biologists with technical advice on hellbender reproduction and husbandry — big challenges when working with captive animals that need very specific parameters of dissolved oxygen, water flow, temperature and nesting habitat.
In addition to providing much-needed guidance, the N.C. Zoological Society paid to renovate the raceways at the conservation center.
“This project is critical since it will provide the opportunity in the future to attempt captive breeding of this important member of the aquatic ecosystem in North Carolina,” Groves said. “This project will also give us a wonderful opportunity to study this salamander in captivity in a large, naturalistic enclosure where additional aspects of its behavior and ecology can be more fully understood.”
The Eastern Hellbender — “An Indicator of Good Water Quality”
As its name indicates, the Eastern hellbender is found throughout the Eastern part of the United States from New York to Mississippi. It is one of North America’s largest salamanders, generally reaching lengths up to 24 inches. With its wide, flat head, small, beady eyes and broad, flat tail, the hellbender can be a scary sight for those not familiar with this mostly nocturnal animal. However, the hellbender is nonvenomous and completely harmless, spending its entire life in the clean, fast-moving mountain streams and rivers of North Carolina where it eats mostly crayfish, small fish and other salamanders.
While its preferred food is crayfish, hellbenders are scavengers and will eat just about anything, including bait, or fish on a stringer, which is why anglers can catch them unintentionally.
It’s these unintentional catches that lead many people to think that hellbenders are harmful to fish populations — a myth that Williams is quick to dispel.
“Hellbenders do not eat enough fish to have a negative impact on fishing,” Williams said. “In fact, finding a hellbender in a stream is actually a good thing because hellbenders do well only in clear, clean water.
“So, finding one is an excellent indicator of good water quality, which also supports game fish populations, like trout and smallmouth bass.”
Williams advises anglers who catch a hellbender to cut the line as close as possible to the hook and release the animal back into the water as quickly and carefully as possible.
Surveys Determine Hellbender Abundance in Five Western North Carolina River Basins
Until recently, biologists had very little information on hellbender populations in North Carolina, although they suspected that hellbenders had declined in many streams due to the usual suspects — poor water quality from silt, sediment and other pollutants, over-collection, human interactions, habitat disturbance, and dams and impounded waterways.
Since 2007, the N.C. Zoo and the Wildlife Commission have surveyed more than 50 waterways in five western North Carolina river basins that were known to have hellbenders at one time or have never been surveyed before.
Preliminary survey results revealed a decline in some hellbender populations while other populations have remained stable. As biologists expected, hellbenders’ success is directly correlated to human density: hellbenders tended to do better in areas with fewer people and less human interactions.
Staff from the N.C. Zoo and the Commission will continue the surveys for another four or five years.
“North Carolina has one of the largest populations of hellbenders in the United States,” said Groves, who has worked with Williams to conduct the surveys. “However, we are finding many populations that are declining or possibly gone. Constant monitoring is important, not only to help protect this aquatic salamander, but also to monitor our waterways.”
Read more about the surveys here.
Even though surveys are ongoing, biologists still have little data on hellbenders. They are asking the public to report any hellbender sightings to email@example.com. For more information on hellbenders in North Carolina, download an information sheet here.
For more information on wildlife conservation in North Carolina, visit www.ncwildlife.org/conserving.
Logo courtesy North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission