Unique Tetrapods: Celebrating Backyard Biodiversity in Ohio

If you were to visit a rainforest or tropical island you would expect to find many unique and amazing animals. But did you know that there are some incredible organisms in the state of Ohio? Giant salamanders, parasitic birds, 1,400 pound bovines, and venomous snakes! All of these animal are uniquely adapted to their environment but some of them are in peril due to a number of human caused factors. Raising awareness of these fascinating animals that live in our own backyards is the first step in conserving the amazing biodiversity around us.

These are three specimens of hellbender salamanders (Cryptobranchus alleganiensis) which are Ohio’s largest amphibian species. They can grow to a length of 11.5 to 20 inches! They are mainly found in southeast Ohio hiding under rocks in fast moving streams. Despite their size, they are harmless to humans but not to small fish, insects, and aquatic invertebrates which they feed on.

Take a closer look at these amazing creatures!

hellbender specimens - close-up

Unfortunately, hellbenders are listed as endangered by the Ohio Division of Wildlife. The biggest threat to these animals are pollution and degradation of their habitat. Removal of rocks, stream damming, and excessive siltation due to nearby forests being converted to farmland all play a role in destroying the hellbender’s habitat. There has been an 80% decline in their populations in Ohio since the mid-1980’s.

Now to a unique life strategy in the avian world: Brood parasites are organisms that use members of another species to raise their offspring. If you have ever heard of birds that are brood parasites then you have probably heard of the Eurasian Cuckoo which does not occur in North America. But we do have a parasitic bird right here in Ohio: the Brown-Headed Cowbird (Molothrus ater). Look at a mix of male (dark birds) and female (brown birds) Brown-Headed Cowbird specimens in our collection:

Tray of Brown-Headed Cowbirds

Here are, from left to right, a female, nestling, and male Brown-Headed Cowbird

Female, nestling and male Brown-headed CowbirdThe female will lay up to 40 eggs each breeding season. However, she does not lay these eggs in her own nest but in the nests of other birds. She is not very picky about what type of nest either, Brown-Headed Cowbirds have up to 221 known host species. These birds are disliked by many because of their tendency to out-compete other songbirds in particular in the Eastern part of the U.S. where Brown-Headed Cowbirds are not native and many songbird species are not adapted to them.


You may have recently heard that the American bison (Bison bison) is now the national mammal of the United States.

American Bison Skull

American Bison Skull

But did you know that these animals once used to freely roam Ohio? Despite being the largest land animal in North America after the Ice Age, these majestic beasts nearly went extinct in the 19th century.

American Bison Skull

Native Americans in Ohio used to hunt wild bison but the bison population did not decline until European settlers reached Ohio. The settlers hunted the bison commercially for their meat and hides. In 1803, the last bison in Ohio was shot and killed in Lawrence County. Today, you can again see bison in Ohio, but they are all captive. One of these places is Battelle Darby Creek Metro Park where 11 bison are currently roaming the restored prairies.


timber rattlesnake specimens in jarAnother animal you may be surprised to find in Ohio is the timber rattlesnake (Crotalus horridus).

These snakes are venomous but they are very docile (despite their Latin name – horridus) and will not attack humans unless provoked. You can call yourself very lucky should you spot one in the wild, because timber rattlesnakes are now considered endangered by the Ohio Division of Wildlife.

Timber rattlesnakes live in the forests of seven counties in southern Ohio. They used to have a much larger range in Ohio but due to direct killing, unregulated collection, and habitat destruction their numbers have severely declined. These snakes can grow up to 6 feet but on average a length of 3 to 4 feet. Like many snakes, these rattlers usually eat mice, rats, chipmunks, and squirrels.

close up of Jars of Timber Rattlesnakes

So next time you are out on a walk in Ohio, keep your eyes open for some of these amazing animals that we find in our backyard.


About the Author: Chelsea Hothem is a 3rd year student majoring in Evolution & Ecology at The Ohio State University and works as a Research Assistant at the Museum of Biological Diversity in the Tetrapod Collection.

All photos ©Hothem, 2016

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