Return of the Devil Dog | Regional conservation efforts support struggling hellbenders
December 31, 2016 12:00 AM
The hellbender is also known as the Allegheny alligator.
By Alexandra Mester / Block News Alliance
TOLEDO, Ohio — While the name of a particular salamander may evoke some snickering, a conservation effort to boost its numbers is quite serious. The pug-nosed freshwater amphibian goes by many names — Allegheny alligator, devil dog, mud devil, snot otter, leverian water newt and even Cryptobranchus alleganiensis.
This year, in line with similar conservation projects throughout the Appalachian region, the Toledo Zoo released more than 200 eastern hellbenders into drainages of the Ohio and Muskingum rivers. The Muskingum enters the larger waterway at Marietta in southeastern Ohio.
As the Ohio River carries aspects of the Appalachian Mountains westward to the Mississippi, the large amphibian is native to its waters. Loss of habitat is primarily responsible for rendering the hellbender endangered in Ohio.
While its populations struggle in Pennsylvania, the hellbender is not on the state’s endangered or threatened lists.
Kent Bekker, director of conservation research at the Toledo Zoo, said the animals are very susceptible to pollution, siltation and general disturbance of their stream-bed habitat.
“That sensitivity is exacerbated by the fact that they are such a long-lived animal with characteristically slow development,” he said.
Not to be confused with the smaller, gilled mudpuppy or waterdog, the hellbender dates to prehistoric times. Living only in the Appalachian Mountain region, it is the largest American salamander and third largest aquatic salamander in the world. Most often it respires — absorbs oxygen from the water directly through its skin — but it has working lungs and can breathe air through fleshy lateral folds on each side of its body. Hellbenders reach sexual maturity in five years and spawn in the fall — territorial males guard dens under nest rocks, protecting the eggs and young..
Harmless to humans but the toothy nemesis of crayfish, the hellbender can stretch to more than 2 feet in length and are known to live 30 years in captivity. It is believed they can live 60-70 years in the wild.
Hellbenders are found in crevasses under large flat rocks that can can be quickly filled by sedimentation. Like amphibians everywhere, their permeable skin makes them particularly susceptible to chemical contamination. Hellbenders need swift-flowing, clear, clean waters with a large crayfish population — habitat that is increasingly hard to find in Ohio.
“If you have a stream with hellbenders, you’re pretty well assured it’s a high-quality stream,” said John Navarro, aquatic diversity program administrator for the Ohio Department of Natural Resources Division of Wildlife. “They are a great indicator of water quality.”
A reliable estimate of Ohio’s hellbender population isn’t available. Surveys conducted in the late 1980s and late 2000s showed an approximate decline of 82 percent.
The Toledo Zoo is the primary facility in the Ohio Hellbender Partnership. Each year, the zoo collects hellbender eggs from the wild and raises the young in a biosecure room until they are 3 years old and large enough to avoid most predators upon release.
“This is directly in line with our mission at the zoo, and it’s a perfect blend with our amphibian husbandry expertise,” Bekker said.
The Ohio Hellbender Partnership includes local, state and federal agencies including the Ohio Department of Natural Resources Division of Wildlife, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, zoos, watershed authorities, colleges and universities, local park districts, and land trusts. The 2016 plan required 235 hellbenders — 185 raised in Toledo and 50 raised by the Columbus Zoo — to be carefully placed in safe areas.
From 2007 through 2011, upstream on the Ohio River, the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, Pittsburgh Zoo and PPG Aquarium and other partners participated in grant-funded research to document and track hellbenders in southwest and southcentral Pennsylvania. Results of their peer reviewed work has been used to monitor regional water quality and hellbender populations, and track the spread of an amphibian disease threatening the eastern hellbender’s smaller Southern cousin, the Ozark hellbender.
In Ohio, the DNR keeps the project’s exact release sites as anonymous as possible. People sometimes collect hellbenders illegally, but even those who just want to see one can disrupt their habitat and harm the salamanders.
Landowners are crucial to the Ohio Hellbender Partnership, necessary in finding release sites and protecting those animals by preventing people from tromping through the stream beds.
“A lot of the local landowners have really taken this to heart,” Navarro said.
This year’s releases were Toledo’s third since receiving its first eggs in 2010. The zoo has reared more than 800 hellbenders.
“We are just getting to the point of releasing significant numbers of hellbenders,” Navarro said. “From this point forward, we’re probably going to be putting 300-plus a year, and that’s a significant number.”
The program will wait a few more years to conduct a formal population assessment to give the newly released animals time to breed and hopefully boost the numbers.
Alexandra Mester is a reporter for the Block News Alliance. The Block News Alliance consists of the Post-Gazette, The Blade of Toledo, Ohio, and television station WDRB in Louisville, Ky. The Post-Gazette contributed to this story.
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