A creature that literally spends its life under a rock, nonetheless, made a big splash in Ohio conservation news in September. That’s when a hellbender that had been raised in captivity was found with eggs in a nest.
“This is a huge milestone,” said John Navarro, program administrator for the Ohio Division of Wildlife’s Aquatic Stewardship program. “This is the first evidence of a released hellbender reproducing in the wild.”
It is also an amazing feat considering the hellbender’s lifestyle of self-imposed seclusion. If it’s not disturbed, they can live under the same rock their entire lives. The only time they socialize is when they mate, Navarro said.
In Ohio, that happens in the fall. The male fashions a nest in his underwater homestead and waits to see if a female finds it to her liking. If she does, she can lay up to 500 eggs in strands. The male fertilizes the eggs after they’re laid.
Then the female decides she has better things to do and wanders off. The male stays behind and guards the eggs — pretty ferociously — until they hatch two or three months later.
Where the juveniles go after that is a mystery. True, they can fall prey to fish, turtles, water snakes and even raccoons. But, in annual surveys, the hellbenders that are found lean heavily toward the geriatric end of the spectrum.
“That’s the million-dollar question: After they hatch, where do the juveniles go?” Navarro said. “We really don’t know where they hide.”
That’s why it was considered another milestone when a juvenile was found in the same creek as the adult male guarding the eggs. Navarro doesn’t want to say which creek because hellbenders are a target of the black-market pet trade.
But both discoveries mean that the goal to get the hellbender off Ohio’s endangered list may be reachable.
“We’d like to see self-sustaining populations in maybe 10 Ohio streams with successful reproduction in the wild,” Navarro said.
That would be in addition to releasing between 200 and 300 hellbender juveniles a year. Hellbender eggs are collected each year and sent to the Columbus and Toledo zoos and to the Penta Career Center in Perrysburg, which has an animal husbandry program. They are raised in these three facilities to the age of three.
“We’re lucky to have the Penta facility, where high school students help take care of them,” Navarro said. “Hellbenders get really ornery as they get older, so they need more space.”
More than 1,900 human-raised hellbenders have been released in Ohio waterways in the past 10 years, he said. Males are not able to reproduce until around the age of 8. The male that was found guarding eggs was released in 2016 and is now 10 years old.
More on hellbenders
The largest salamander in North America at a length of two feet or more, the eastern hellbender (there’s also an Ozark subspecies) lives in Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Kentucky, Illinois and Indiana. They’ve been known to live to age 30 in captivity, but a recent study shows they may live to 50 in the wild.
While other salamanders spend only part of their time in water, the hellbender is “truly aquatic” and stays underwater its entire life, Navarro said.
It’s also unusual because it breathes entirely through its skin. The uncomplimentary nickname “old lasagna sides” refers to the hellbender’s skin being folded and wrinkled, which helps it absorb dissolved oxygen in the water.
Hellbenders must have clean, fast-moving water, and in that respect, they’re canaries in the coal mine. When creeks and streams become polluted, hellbenders can’t survive. For that reason, parts of the Little Beaver Creek watershed were tested but were found to have “no impact” from the East Palestine train derailment, Navarro said.
Hellbenders must also have good streamside habitat which means undisturbed forests and hillsides with big, flat rocks that can tumble into the water.
When they do fall in, the rocks must land so that there is space underneath for the water to flow through, and the bottom of the stream must be rocky and gravelly.
Continued conservation efforts
Development, agriculture, loss of forests and other human activity are responsible for the loss of much of that ideal hellbender habitat. Erosion sends silt that fills up the space under their rocks or turns the stream bottom to flat bedrock.
For that reason, “hellbender huts” made of cement are being placed in waterways where hellbenders are known to live. Weighing 50 pounds or more, they allow fresh water to flow through but have only a small entrance to protect resident hellbenders from predators. The male guarding eggs was found in one of these huts, Navarro said.
A legend in the herpetology world, the late Ralph Phingsten, surveyed amphibians and reptiles in Ohio for 50 years, starting in 1965. His three-year survey of hellbenders in the mid-1980s found such an alarming drop in their numbers that they were put on the state’s endangered list in 1990.
It also resulted in the Ohio Hellbender Partnership, which meets twice a year. As part of that and the Ohio Biodiversity Conservation Partnership, the Division of Wildlife contracts with Greg Lipps, amphibian and reptile conservation coordinator for Ohio State University, to help with the annual hellbender surveys. Lipps won the Columbus Zoo’s Commitment to Conservation award in July.
Hellbenders eat mostly crayfish but also fish, invertebrates and even other hellbenders. But they don’t go far from home to hunt for them, rather waiting till something passes by, then pouncing.
“It’s a pretty sedentary lifestyle,” Navarro said.
Yet it’s one that he and many others are willing to help them maintain. It’s all about reaching that goal of self-sustaining populations in Ohio and, most importantly, “getting them off the endangered list.”
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