Conservations hellbent on helping hellbenders

Conservation volunteers, from zoos to prison inmates, are hellbent on ensuring the endangered eastern Hellbender salamander once again will thrive in healthy Ohio watersheds.

The Ohio Hellbender Partnership has released 249 hellbenders at eight sites in four Ohio River watersheds and have collected 3,056 Hellbender eggs from 16 nests in six watersheds, according to Greg Lipps, partnership coordinator.

The young hellbenders were reared in biologically secure facilities in four institutions: Toledo Zoo (819); Columbus Zoo (262), Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo (82); and Marion Correctional Facility, according to the Hellbender Partnership, said Lipps.

The hatched hellbenders can spend up to three to four years in zoo and prison incubators to ensure survivability when they are reintroduced into streams, according to the Ohio Department of Natural Resources. 

Hellbenders spend up to four years at the zoo, and then are placed back in the wild to bolster populations. Researchers estimate that mortality for wild newborn hellbenders is greater than 90 percent, but under the care of zookeepers this can be reduced to less than 10 percent.

Hellbenders, among the world's largest amphibians, like to stay under rocks in streams where they typically feed on crayfish. The salamander can grow to 2 feet and weigh as much as 3 pounds.  Hellbenders are found in streams that flow in the Ohio River. "It's one of the most ancient of the amphibians, a really cool critter," Lipps said.

The hellbender restoration program began in 2011 after an ODNR survey in 2006-2009 found an 82 percent reduction in the hellbender population from earlier surveys in the 1980s. 

The decline was attributed agricultural runoff into streams, sedimentation, disease, dams and persecution, according to a ODNR news release. 

"What was more disturbing," Lipps said, "we were finding old, large individuals. The leading theory was young larvae need clean gravel and substraits."

Hellbenders reintroduced into waterways are equipped with radio transmitters known as Passive Integrated Transponders also known as PIT tags  to better track the animals and assess survivability of the species. 

Partners include the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, ODNR, Ohio soil and water conservation districts, the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, and the Wilds in Muskingum County. 

Funding for the project is provided by the USFWS, the ODNR and zoo donations. 

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