The Chattanooga Zoo is pleased to announce the successful hatching of a group of Hellbender eggs collected from the wild in East Tennessee. This is the first Hellbender hatching on Chattanooga Zoo grounds.
The Chattanooga Zoo has been working on Hellbender conservation on-site and infield since 2009. Due to catastrophic population collapse across the state, the Chattanooga Zoo teamed up with the Nashville Zoo’s Ectotherm department to collect eggs and begin setting up a head start program for east and middle Tennessee.
Working in partnership with the Tennessee Wildlife Resource Agency, the Nashville Zoo, The University of Tennessee, and Lee University, the Zoo will rear this group of juvenile Hellbenders for several years, until they are mature enough to monitor in the wild. Once they reach maturity, they will be released into a suitable stream in East Tennessee where species sightings no longer occur.
Creating head start programs for this species will give each individual animal a better chance of survival. Because they will be larger when released into the wild, they are easier to study, either by traditional methods or radio transmitters, which is essential for gathering data.
“Without human intervention of field research, head start programs, habitat protect and restoration, and animal reintroductions, we will lose the species to extinction. Our Ectotherm department and partners work diligently to better understand these animals in efforts to save and protect them for years to come,” David Hedrick, Chattanooga Zoo Ectotherm Keeper III.
Photo Credits: Chattanooga Zoo
Formerly found in streams throughout middle and east Tennessee, Hellbenders have experienced a steep decline throughout the state over the past thirty years. Declining populations are due to degraded water quality, sedimentation, pollution, and habitat loss from dams and other developments. A decade of field research has recently verified only six remaining streams that have healthy, self-sustaining populations in Tennessee. The Chattanooga Zoo hopes, through conservation efforts, public education, and partnerships, to be able to help reverse this trend of population decline in Tennessee Hellbenders.
The Hellbender (Cryptobranchus alleganiensis), also known as the Hellbender Salamander, is a species of Giant Salamander endemic to eastern North America. A member of the Cryptobranchidae family, Hellbenders are the only members of the Cryptobranchus genus, and are joined only by one other genus of salamanders (Andrias, which contains the Japanese and Chinese Giant Salamanders) at the family level.
The Hellbender is the largest aquatic salamander in the United States and grows to an average size of 12-15 inches, but they can be as long as 29 inches. They are nocturnal and exist on a diet of: crayfish, small fish, tadpoles, toads, and water snakes. They absorb oxygen from the water through their skin and can be found slowly crawling across the bottoms of clear, silt-free mountain streams.
The species is classified as “Near Threatened” on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. The Ozark Hellbender is particularly imperiled; drastic population declines were documented in the late 1980s and 1990s. It is listed as “Endangered” in Missouri and may soon be listed as Endangered federally.
Hellbenders are present in a number of Eastern US states, from southern New York to northern Georgia, including parts of Ohio, Pennsylvania, Maryland, West Virginia, Virginia, Kentucky, Illinois, Indiana, Tennessee, North Carolina, South Carolina, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, Missouri, and even a small bit of Oklahoma and Kansas.
Vernacular names for the Hellbender include: snot otter, devil dog, mud-devil, grampus, Allegheny alligator, mud dog, water dog, and leverian water newt.
*The Chattanooga Zoo would like to express their gratitude for the financial assistance of local conservation partners in the effort to save the Hellbender: Terminal Brewhouse, and Mohawk Canoes.