When you think of salamanders, the image that most likely pops in your head is a small slimy amphibian about 6-12 inches in length. However, that isn’t the case with the Eastern Hellbender Salamander!
This salamander generally reaches from 11.5 to 20 inches long and in some cases even larger up to 27 inches! The Hellbender is currently the largest amphibian in Ohio. These salamanders are completely aquatic and make their homes in large fast flowing streams where they can hide under large rocks during the day and feed on smaller organisms such as insects, worms, minnows and crayfish. Hellbenders breed in the late summer around late August or September, the female can lay up to 500 eggs in a nest that is dug by the male under a large flat rock. The difference between Hellbenders and other salamanders aside from their size is the fact that males do not fertilize the eggs until after they have been laid! Once the eggs have been fertilized, the offspring will hatch in two to three months.
Sadly, this formidable creature is currently listed as endangered in Ohio. Recently, surveys of hellbender populations have found an 82 percent decline compared to previous surveys done in the mid-1980s. These salamanders are so large and can live 35 years or more, so why are they declining? The main cause lies behind pollution, and habitat degradation. Hellbenders will only live in clean streams, and with the increase in infrastructure throughout Ohio that only means more sediment pollution of water sources where these salamanders may live. While, older salamanders may be able to push through the dirtier waters, younger ones cannot. It is believed that young hellbenders live in the small spaces in gravel beds or medium sized rocks, these areas are easily filled with dirt and silt. New pipelines also being implemented is also a large concern, when these pipelines are added in, the erosion muddies up any streams or water sources that are around it.
There are several solutions to repopulating, one is to raise salamanders when they are young and eventually releasing them when they are older so they have a higher chance of living as well as collecting eggs to continue to rear them. The Ohio DNR, Toledo Zoo, and Columbus Zoo and Aquarium have collaborated in the past to release 189 captive-reared Hellbenders into three eastern Ohio watersheds. Members of the Ohio Hellbender Partnership are also looking to implement the Ohio Conservation Plan for this species. The plan would include rearing Hellbenders from eggs found in the wild in safety of partner zoos and then released back into the wild to help improve populations. This is because researchers currently estimate the mortality rate for wild newborn Hellbenders to be over 90 percent but if taken care of under zookeepers it is also a whole 360 and reduced to less than 10 percent. Other solutions include efforts to protect stream habitat such as preventing erosion by planting trees. The abundance of the Hellbender not only reflects their health as a species but also the health of Ohio streams. While efforts are being made to boost Hellbender populations there is still a long way to go before these salamanders are back in clear waters.
To learn more about the Hellbender and conservation efforts, check out the video below!