A Head Start for Hellbenders

April 10, 2021

Conservation project protects Local endangered salamanders

From elephants in Tanzania to orangutans in Sumatra, the Indianapolis Zoo is protecting endangered species around the globe … and in our backyard.

The Zoo is collaborating with several other conservation organizations in the state, including the Fort Wayne Children’s Zoo and Mesker Park Zoo, to save hellbenders — large salamanders that are native to rivers in southern Indiana. Hellbender eggs are fragile and have a much better chance of development in human care. Hellbenders are important indicators of the health of our rivers and streams.

With oversight from the Indiana Department of Natural Resources, Purdue University led the collection of hellbender eggs in September along with Deserts Area Manager Lewis Single. The group snorkeled in the river, looking in crevices and under rocks, and found multiple nests, each with more than 300 eggs. The eggs from one of these nests were loaded into a cooler and carefully brought back to the Zoo, where they were placed in a custom-built egg rearing system, complete with a “bubbler” to move the eggs just as a male hellbender would in the river.

With attentive tending by the Deserts team, the eggs soon developed into larvae and began hatching in November. After four to five years of care here at the Zoo, these juvenile hellbenders will be released into local waterways, with the goal of strengthening and increasing wild populations.