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Helping hellbenders
by Peter Tolson, Ph.D., and Kandace York
Sept. 26, 2013

Hellbenders are Ohio's largest native amphibian, and thanks to your Zoo's donor-funded Conservation Today program, they're returning to some of the state's riverways.


In September, 2012, the Zoo received its first eggs from the wild. Since then, the larvae, which normally feed on their own yolk reserves for nearly two months, have begun feeding on their own, eating Zoo-raised blackworms. As they grow, they will start eating native crawfish, which are nearly 90 percent of the adult diet in the wild.

Photo: R. Andrew Odum

Hellbenders can live 20 years or more, but they are slow-growing; this one is 3 to 4 years old. Headstarting the animals at the Zoo before releasing them to the wild offers a better chance of survival. Click here to see a video of the Zoo's biosecure lab and the work being done in Ohio waterways to help these amphibians.
Photo: Jeff Humphries,
creative commons license

One thing humans and hellbenders have in common is that both need clean water. When you buy selected Zoo merchandise like this filtering water bottle, you support Conservation Today. Look for displays at the Zoo's North Star Trading Post® and KC's Corner Store. Merchandise includes selected plush animals, totes, apparel and more.
Photo courtesy of Any Promo



What's a hellbender?

You've probably never seen a hellbender (Cryptobranchus alleganiensis), though you might have seen its smaller cousin, the mudpuppy.

In Ohio, hellbenders live only in the southeastern third of the state. Although they're large -- up to 2 feet long -- they spend most of their time hiding under rocks in clear moving water.

How did such a shy, harmless animal end up with such a fierce name? No one's sure, but a Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) story claims a fisherman said the salamanders "looked like they crawled out of hell and are bent on going back."

And if hellbender wasn't a bad enough name, the nicknames are even worse. Try snot otter.

Although it might not be the kindest nickname, John Chastain, the Zoo's primary hellbender keeper, admits, "They're pretty slippery [secreting a slightly poisonous slime for defense] and they're hard to hold onto ... and they do kind of swim like otters."

Why we care

Hellbenders depend on clean water to survive, preferring the large, swift-flowing streams of southeastern Ohio. Unfortunately, these sites are becoming rarer, and hellbenders are now state-endangered.

"They're a good indicator of water quality," John says. "In Ohio, the populations are pretty diminished."

In other words, the presence (or absence) of hellbenders within their habitat areas tells us how healthy the ecosystem is.

What we're doing

Your Zoo is a vital part of the Ohio Hellbender Partnership, a group of conservation organizations working together to help these amphibians.

Toledo Zoo herpetologists, along with other Ohio zoo staff, collect hellbender eggs from the wild, then hatch and raise them (“headstarting”) until they are large enough for release back into the wild.

"We have 170 hellbenders that we'll eventually release," John says. "We're waiting for them to get up to 35 grams so we can get pit tags [microchips] in them." The microchips enable biologists to measure the species' populations during future catch-scan-release projects.

Some of the hellbenders will be outfitted with radio transmitters which, although more expensive than microchips, offer more detailed information that's easier to get. "With a microchip, you need to catch the animal to scan it. But with a radio transmitter, you use an antenna to know where the animals are; you don't need to catch them."

The upcoming releases of these headstarted hellbenders, tentatively scheduled for some time in 2014, will be happy additions to the Zoo's long record of outstanding salamander conservation.


Successes like these happen because of people just like you who support Conservation Today, the Zoo's donor-funded conservation initiative. When you join Conservation Today, you'll be making a difference in your community and in your world. You'll also get regular updates about the good work your support makes possible; read a recent issue here.

Above: Mature hellbenders measure 12 to 29 inches long; their color ranges from grayish to olive brown (and
occasionally even solid black). They are well adapted to their fast-flowing stream habitats, with a "hydrodynamic"
shape that includes a flattened head and body, short stout legs and long, rudder-like tail. Photo: R. Andrew Odum

Banner photo, top of page, by R. Andrew Odum




For more information about any of the Zoo’s programs or services, please call 419.385.5721 or visit toledozoo.org.