Hellbenders being raised, released into Ohio streams

Causes of decline include excessive siltation, pollution, disease, persecution, collection and dams.
MCT Regional News
Dec 2, 2013

The state of Ohio and its partners are working to re-establish the endangered eastern hellbender in streams it once occupied in eastern Ohio.

The hellbender is the largest amphibian in Ohio and one of the largest salamanders in the world. It can reach 27 inches in length and weighs nearly 3 pounds.

More than 20 hellbenders have been released by the Ohio Department of Natural Resources into two streams over the past three years.

Officials will not say where, to protect the young hellbenders.

The plan is to release hundreds of hellbenders into multiple streams over 10 to 15 years, said John Navarro of ODNR’s Division of Wildlife. The state has been releasing 3-year-old hellbenders that are at least 12 inches in length, he said.

The Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, the Toledo Zoo and The Wilds in Muskingum County have been raising hellbenders from eggs collected from streams in eastern Ohio.

Starting in late September, the state’s Marion Correctional Institution started a program to increase rearing space and boost the program. Twelve juvenile hellbenders were transferred to the state facility from the Toledo Zoo.

“The transfer of the hellbenders to MCI is a significant first step in increasing the numbers of hellbenders available for release,” said R. Andrew Odum, curator of herpetology and assistant director of animal programs at the Toledo Zoo.

“The preservation of Ohio’s native wildlife is a principal priority for all the partners in this project,” he said in a statement.

The new initiative marks an important step in the Division of Wildlife’s conservation plan to reverse the precipitous decline of the hellbender by expanding their range into previously occupied streams to establish multiple self-sustaining populations in Ohio.

The hellbenders, with their tiny eyes and wrinkled body, live under large rocks in streams. They feed on crayfish, snails, minnows, insects and worms and take in oxygen through highly vascularized skin.

The salamander is considered an important part of Ohio’s natural heritage, and the presence of hellbenders is evidence of clean water and a healthy habitat.

Hellbenders were returned to two streams that had been severely impacted by water pollution but have recovered. Today they are among the highest quality waterways in Ohio.

Biologists surgically implanted the hellbenders with radio transmitters to track movement. Data from the project will be used to develop future hellbender reintroductions in Ohio.

A state survey in 2006-2008 determined that the population had dropped 82 percent since stream surveys conducted in the mid-1980s. Causes of the decline include excessive siltation, pollution, disease, persecution, collection and dams.

Where hellbenders remain in Ohio, the populations are largely only old, large individuals and do not appear to be self-sustaining, Navarro said.

Without intervention, the hellbender is likely to disappear from Ohio waterways, he said.

Hellbenders range from New York to Georgia and west to Missouri. They were once found throughout the Ohio River drainage area.

Researchers found similar population declines throughout the hellbender’s range, and the species is considered threatened or endangered in most states. In Ohio, it is listed as endangered.

Funding for the project came from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service through a state wildlife grant, plus donations to the Ohio Division of Wildlife’s Diversity Program, the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium’s Conservation Fund and the Toledo Zoo.

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By Bob Downing -Akron Beacon Journal (MCT)

©2013 the Akron Beacon Journal (Akron, Ohio)

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