Published August 25, 2021
By Dr. Nikki Roach Reptile and Amphibian Conservation Coordinator, Global Center for Species Survival
Snot otter, devil dog and Ol’ lasagna sides… these are just some of the names used to refer to the charismatic salamander species – the hellbender (Cryptobranchus alleganiensis) – the largest aquatic salamander in North America and a state-endangered species in Indiana. With only a few hundred wild hellbenders left in the Hoosier state, conservation efforts are exceedingly important.
Hellbenders are nocturnal and live in fast-flowing, healthy streams with cobble and large rocks – which provide food, shelter, and reproduction habitat. They are the top stream predators, consuming mostly crayfish, fish and invertebrates. Hellbenders are also territorial and will defend their rock habitat from others. However, you’d be lucky to spot one as they are elusive and rarely seen during the day.
Hellbenders are important to people because they serve as an indicator of environmental health: “They can really only survive in areas that have really good water quality,” says Nick Burgmeier, research biologist and extension wildlife specialist at Purdue University. “Anything that people do that affects the river or decreases the water quality, is bad for hellbenders. They are one of the most sensitive species in the environment and tend to be one of the species that disappears first.”
Conservation of the hellbender requires collaboration. Zoos, state agencies, universities, non-profits and local landowners are all involved in the effort. The Indianapolis Zoo supports conservation efforts by increasing the population of hellbenders through a breeding program. Baby hellbenders are currently in the care of Zoo staff, and at Purdue University, husbandry lab coordinator Shelby Royal is taking care of another young population. These dedicated professionals will raise hundreds of hellbenders for release into Indiana rivers once they have matured. Nick Burgmeier focuses on releasing these captive hellbenders to their native habitat and tracking their success. Re-populating streams with hellbenders will help ensure that ecosystems are balanced and thrive.
Recently, a team from the Zoo joined Burgmeier and Royal in releasing several dozen hellbenders. The juvenile salamanders spent the last five years being raised by Royal at Purdue University. After implanting the hellbenders with radio transmitters, the animals were deposited in “soft release” enclosures in the Blue River near Corydon, Indiana. These enclosures, where they remain for 3 days, allow the hellbenders to safely adapt to their new environment before they are fully released to explore the river. After release, the team will track hellbenders every 2-3 days to document their movement and survival rate.
Next year, several hundred hellbenders will be released in the Blue River, and future releases are planned for Indian Creek in Harrison County. Other sites in central and southeast Indiana will be evaluated for their potential to support the reintroduction of hellbenders.
The hellbender has been around for 150 million years. By doing your part to keep waterways clean and healthy, we can help conserve habitat and protect one of our nation’s coolest and oldest creatures.
Some actions you can take to protect hellbenders include:
Pick your day. Pick your price. Pick your package. Prices online are cheaper than at the gate.