Helping hellbenders thrive in their habitat

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hellbender
Hellbenders are usually brown but can also be gray, black, green or orange in color. They have wide mouths, small eyes and short legs with four toes on the front feet and five on the back feet. The oldest hellbender in captivity is over 30, but they are believed to live to 60 or even 80 years in the wild. (Al Staffan, Ohio Division of Wildlife, photo)

No one knows how hellbenders got their name, other than early settlers speculating on their place of origin. 

Since then, they’ve acquired other, more descriptive names like “snot otter” for the mucus that helps protect them from predators and disease, or “old lasagna sides” for the many folds and wrinkles that help them breathe through their skin. 

“If you’ve ever seen one, you might be slightly horrified,” said John Navarro, the aquatic stewardship program administrator for the ODNR Division of Wildlife. “They have beady eyes and a face only a mother could love.” 

But Eastern hellbenders are completely harmless and spend most of their lives under a rock. Ninety percent of their diet is crayfish, but they will also eat fish, invertebrates and anything else that floats by. 

When they’re eight or 10 years old, they begin to reproduce. Females lay their eggs, which the males fertilize then guard ferociously. 

“They can spend their entire lives under the same rock,” Navarro said. “It’s not a very exciting lifestyle.” 

Hellbenders have been doing this since at least the Jurassic period, surviving floods, droughts and ice floes. It’s only been in the last several decades that they seem to be succumbing to a different disaster: human activity. 

Scientists suspect that dams, development, loss of forests and intensive agriculture are leading to their drastic drop in number. 

The hellbender is actually a salamander, the largest in North America and third largest in the world, growing to a length of two feet or more. While some salamanders spend only part of their time in water, or no time at all, the hellbender is “truly aquatic,” Navarro said. 

“These guys spend their whole lives in water.” 

Specific habitat

For the hellbender, it must be clear, fast-moving water where there’s good streamside habitat, he said. That means tributaries lined with woods and undisturbed forests, with a source for big, flat rocks — we’re talking the size of a kitchen table — located on hillsides where they can tumble into the water.

 When they do fall in, the rocks must land perfectly, so there is space underneath where water can flow through. And the bottom of the stream must be rocky and gravelly, a place where the hellbender can feed and breed. It cannot be covered in silt, or eroded to flat bedrock. 

That’s a tall order for suitable habitat, but hellbenders seem to find it in tributaries that feed directly into the Ohio River including Little Beaver Creek, Yellow Creek and Captina Creek, Navarro said. There are also hellbenders in the Mohican, Muskingum and Kokosing rivers in Central Ohio, but not in the Lake Erie watershed. 

Until his death in March of this year, Ralph Pfingsten was considered Ohio’s amphibian expert. He was also keeper of the state’s oldest hellbender in captivity, Marvin, who can now be seen at the Captina Conservancy in Barnesville. 

Decline in numbers

Between 1965 and 2015, Pfingsten documented more than 15,000 amphibians and reptiles in 84 of Ohio’s 88 counties. His three-year survey of the Eastern hellbender in the mid-1980s resulted in its inclusion on Ohio’s endangered species list. 

Herpetologist Gregory Lipps, Amphibian & Reptile Conservation Coordinator for OSU’s Ohio Biodiversity Conservation Partnership, worked with Pfingsten and others to do a follow-up survey from 2006 to 2010. 

They determined there was an 82% reduction in the number of hellbenders since Pfingsten’s survey just 20 years earlier. Another disturbing trend was that of the 79 hellbenders they found, very few were juveniles. 

Lipps, who was lead author for the Division of Wildlife’s hellbender conservation plan, called it a “nursing home population.” 

“They’re disappearing from their range, which includes Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Kentucky, Illinois and Indiana, and surveys are only finding older adults, not juveniles,” Navarro said. “We’re trying to figure out if they’re reproducing in the wild, and if so, where are the young going?” 

Hellbender partnership

The alarm resulting from those surveys led to the creation of the Ohio Hellbender Partnership which includes biologists and representatives from local, state and federal agencies; universities, zoos, land trusts, conservancies and county Soil and Water Conservation Districts. 

In 2012, it also led to collecting hellbender eggs and sending them to the Columbus and Toledo zoos and to the Penta Career Center in Perrysburg, which has an animal husbandry program. The eggs are hatched and the young raised at these facilities for three years — no easy task when they start picking at each other and have to be separated, Navarro said. 

The youngsters are then released, either in the streams where eggs were found or other appropriate habitat. To date, Navarro said, more than 1,500 young hellbenders have been released at 26 locations in 10 different watersheds, mostly in Southeast Ohio.

 Joshua Emanuelson, the Little Beaver Creek coordinator for the Columbiana Soil and Water Conservation District, is one of the folks who releases young hellbenders that have been raised in captivity. He estimates that between 300 and 400 have been released in the Little Beaver Creek watershed, a 510-square-mile area. 

Three different forks of the creek meet near the Ohio-Pennsylvania line and flow into the Ohio River. He said in the first weeks after they’re released and they’re looking for a forever home, young hellbenders can fall prey to raccoons and other predators.

“But by far their biggest threat is humans,” Emanuelson said. 

People collect hellbenders for the black market pet trade, or just to say they caught one, he said. In searching the streams, they may destroy habitat and kill other hellbenders. That’s why he never gets any more specific than “the Little Beaver Creek watershed” when talking about releases. 

On the hunt

Other times of the year, Emanuelson spends “hours upon hours” snorkeling — sometimes in pretty cold water — hoping to document the presence of hellbenders and perhaps collect some eggs.

 “When you find one, it’s like winning the lottery,” he said. “You might only see its eyes and mouth, but it’s exciting.” 

The search is made a little easier if he’s looking in hellbender huts. Constructed from a design that was developed in Ohio, the huts weigh 50 pounds each and were deployed in seven different watersheds “to supplement habitat lost through sedimentation or erosion filling in under the rocks,” Emanuelson said. 

The huts offer a less stressful and less invasive way to survey adults and collect eggs. 

“We pull the lid off, tissue sample the adult and tag them, then easily remove the eggs to send to the zoos,” he said. 

Water quality

Hellbenders are wrinkly for a reason. Because they don’t have lungs or gills and breathe through their skin, the many folds and flaps increase the surface area so their capillaries are able to absorb more oxygen. 

This method of breathing makes clean water even more crucial to their survival and makes the hellbender a canary in the coal mine for water quality. 

That’s why students in Mechanicsburg Area High School suggested the hellbender become Pennsylvania’s state amphibian, which it did in 2019. 

“Today’s ceremony is about more than a declaration of an official state amphibian. It’s about reaffirming our commitment to protecting our waters in Pennsylvania,” said Gov. Tom Wolf when he signed the bill. 

This spring, Emanuelson worked with fifth-graders at Southern Local and Crestview schools to study water quality and what factors impact it, like nutrients, sediment and runoff. And he continues to work with landowners “to keep equipment, vehicles and livestock from causing high levels of erosion on the stream banks,” he said. 

The Ohio partnership asks that anyone who sees a hellbender report it by calling 800-WILDLIFE. Anglers who accidentally catch one should snap a photo to send to the Division of Wildlife, then carefully remove the hook before returning it to the water. The photo is to make sure it’s a hellbender and not a mudpuppy, which look similar but have frilly gills. 

Meanwhile, the Ohio partnership plans to continue to hatch hellbender eggs in captivity, but hope it’s not a permanent solution. 

“Long term, the goal is to develop multiple, self-sustaining populations,” Navarro said. “We hope as these projects go a few more years, we can jump-start their populations so they can go it alone.” 

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