The Toledo Zoo is working with inmates at the Marion Correctional Institute (MCI) and conservation organizations throughout Ohio to help restore populations of the eastern hellbender, a state-endangered species of salamander.
The zoo has transferred 12 juvenile hellbenders to MCI in recent weeks. “The preservation of Ohio’s native wildlife is a key priority for the Toledo Zoo, and this is a significant step in increasing the numbers of hellbenders available for release,” said R. Andrew (Andy) Odum, the zoo’s curator of herpetology and assistant director of animal programs.
At MCI, inmates are caring for the juvenile hellbenders, which biologists will eventually release to carefully selected habitat sites. The “head-starting” is important because it offers the animals a better chance for survival. To date, biologists have released more than 20 salamanders into two eastern Ohio streams. Microchips and radio transmitters will enable subsequent tracking of the animals; data will be used to develop future hellbender reintroductions in Ohio.
Additional partners in the project include the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, the Wilds in Muskingum County and the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR). Funding was provided by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service through a State Wildlife Grant, donations to the ODNR Division of Wildlife’s Diversity Program, the Toledo Zoo’s Conservation Today program, and the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium’s Conservation Fund.
The eastern hellbender (Cryptobranchus alleganiensis alleganiensis) is Ohio’s largest native amphibian and one of the world’s largest salamanders. Well adapted to spend most of its time under rocks in Ohio’s rivers and large creeks, the hellbender feeds on crayfish and “breathes” through its skin.
Nicknames for the species include snot otter, devil dogs, mud cats, mollyhuggers and Allegheny alligators.
A 2006-2009 ODNR survey found that eastern hellbenders had declined by 82 percent since the mid-1980s. In the Ohio watersheds where hellbenders remain, populations consist of only old, large individuals, indicating a lack of successful population recruitment. Most remaining Ohio populations do not appear to be self-sustaining. Without intervention, the species will likely disappear from Ohio waterways.
Causes of the decline include dams, excessive siltation, pollution, disease, and persecution and collection. The species ranges from New York to Georgia and west to Missouri. Researchers have noted similar population declines throughout the hellbender’s range, and the species is considered threatened or endangered in most states.
Currently, about 170 hellbenders live at the Toledo Zoo; visitors can see some of them at the Amazing Amphibians exhibit inside the Museum of Science.
The zoo supports hellbender conservation efforts through the sale of specially marked filtering water bottles, available at two zoo gift shops. Donors to the Zoo’s Conservation Today program also provide significant support.