hellbender 1This one-year-old hellbender will be raised in captivity for the next few years before being returned to the wild. (Photo by Tom Campbell)

​​Saving a Species​

Purdue Partners with Indiana Zoos for Hellbender Conservation

By ​Olivia Maddox​ - Published May 18, 2015​

When 50 young hellbenders moved from Purdue University's Aquaculture Research Lab to one of three Indiana zoos to be reared for the next few years, it may mark about the farthest distance they will travel in their lives. Adult salamanders only range about 300 meters.

But spending the first years of their lives in captivity will greatly improve their odds for survival.

Purdue is partnering with Columbian Park Zoo in Lafayette, Fort Wayne Children's Zoo and Mesker Park Zoo in Evansville in a conservation program that will involve raising year-old hellbender salamanders and then returning them to their southern Indiana habitat.

Zoos Crucial to Survival

Rod Williams, associate professor of wildlife science and leader of the university's hellbender effort, approached zoo officials about joining the program, which also includes the Indiana Department of Natural Resources.

Rod WilliamsWildlife scientist Rod Williams is partnering with three Indiana zoos and the state to raise juvenile hellbenders in captivity and increase the species' odds for survival. (Photo by Tom Campbell)

North America's largest salamander is in decline nationally and is most vulnerable to predators when young.

"Mortality can be as high as 99 percent in the wild," Williams says. "By rearing them in captivity for three to four years they will have a much better survival rate."

In 2013, Williams and his team collected 300 eggs from the Blue River in southern Indiana, currently the only location in the state where the salamander is found.

"You don't want to have all your eggs in one basket—literally," Williams says, referring to the 1-year-old hellbenders that were hatched at the aquaculture facility. "Parceling some of them out to different locations reduces the risk that an equipment malfunction or other problem could jeopardize the entire clutch of eggs."

This spring, the research team transported the hellbenders to the zoos in a pickup outfitted with water tanks that maintain the same conditions as in the lab. The zoos have been preparing since last summer, setting up chillers, water pumps and tanks, replicating lab conditions. Last fall, a representative from each zoo and Williams' team attended a hellbender husbandry conference at the St. Louis Zoo, a world leader in captive rearing of the amphibian.

Joe Smith, director of animal health for the Fort Wayne zoo, says the zoo's mission is to inspire people to care about wildlife.

Rod Williams, Erin Kenison and Fort Wayne Children's Zoo David Messmann and Joe SmithPurdue's Rod Williams (from left) and Erin Kenison and Fort Wayne Children's Zoo David Messmann and Joe Smith celebrate the first transfer of hellbenders to an Indiana zoo. (Photo by Brian Tornabene)

"We're always looking for local opportunities, and it's especially important that our guests can take steps to protect hellbenders and their environment," he says.

"Knowing that they will be returned to the wild is a big motivator for me," says Smith, a veterinarian. "We don't often get to contribute to conservation so directly. Most of our impact is through education."

For Williams, education is an important part of the partnership. The zoos will expand on Purdue Extension programming and the Help the Hellbender website.

Studies conducted by Linda Prokopy, associate professor of natural resources planning, showed that awareness of the hellbender is pretty low, especially among the general public. Saving the species will take buy-in from people who live in the areas surrounding the rivers and streams where the animals live. And anglers need to know what they should do if they catch a hellbender.

"Collectively, the zoos can reach about a million patrons a year," Williams says. "The combination of research, conservation messaging and increased awareness is a win-win for everyone."

While Columbian Park Zoo has worked with Purdue on other projects, this is its first wildlife conservation collaboration with the university, says Dana Rhodes, interim zoo director. "It's a great conservation program and local-state partnership."

While the hellbenders will not be incorporated into public exhibits at the zoos, they may be included on special tours, such as those for school groups.

Expanding Hellbenders' Habitat

This summer Williams' team will evaluate the habitat quality of Indiana's historic waterways—tributaries of the Ohio River—for water quality, prey abundance and habitat stability, as well as checking for the presence of hellbenders. Previous surveys have not located hellbenders outside the Blue River, but scientists now have a much more accurate method at their disposal.

Williams and Zach Olson, a former post-doc at Purdue, showed that they could detect hellbender DNA from samples of moving water. This process—termed eDNA sampling—is especially valuable because traditional detection methods required people to literally turn over stones in rivers and visually spot the amphibians. "We don't think we will find any (outside the Blue River), but we want to check to be sure," Williams says.

The Purdue team will work with the Indiana Department of Environmental Management to evaluate water quality in the streams. Hellbenders prefer fast-moving currents and rocky stream bottoms. Like many other amphibians, they breathe through their porous skin, which makes them vulnerable to water pollution.

In September, researchers will return to the Blue River to again collect eggs. After hatching, the young will be kept at Purdue until they are approximately six months old—a critical period in their development.

As the Purdue program expands, Williams anticipates that Fort Wayne and Mesker Park, the two larger zoos, will be able to take an increasing number of hellbenders. "We wanted to start small while everybody is learning," he says.

Survival Rate Increasing

Two years ago, Williams and his team released 18 hellbenders—collected in West Virginia and reared predominately at Purdue—into the Blue River. Radio transmitters tracked them for a year. Data included their movements, habitat preferences and survivorship. At the end of one year, 22.5 percent survived.

The study provided valuable baseline data. "What we learned will help improve how we rear them in captivity and ultimately increase survivorship," Williams says. "While 22.5 percent may not seem that high, going from 1 to 22.5 percent is a huge jump. Our goal is to reach 40-50 percent. That would be remarkable and go a long way to restoring the hellbender population in Indiana."

The next hellbender release will be 80 in summer 2016, followed by an additional 130 in summer 2017. These hellbenders, too, will be fitted with transmitters. Williams expects to release some of them in at least one other waterway.

Williams grew up near Corydon, Indiana, close to many of the streams the hellbenders would have inhabited. He never encountered one in the wild until he was approached by Indiana Department of Natural Resources officials in 2007 to help spearhead the conservation project.

"When my wife and I were dating in high school, we took a canoe trip on the Blue River, the same waters where they live," he says. "To think that we could see them in more of these streams where I grew up will be like coming full circle."

Related Links

Purdue partners with Indiana zoos for hellbender conservation

Purdue part of national group bent on saving the hellbender

Exhibit Explores the Importance of Salamanders

By Keith Robinson - Published May 18, 2015​

hellbender exhibitThis traveling exhibit will help educate people about the importance of hellbenders and other salamanders and actions that can conserve their habitat. (Photo courtesy Purdue Agricultural Exhibit Design Center)

A new Purdue University exhibit explains the important role that salamanders play in the environment.

A Salamander Tale, a traveling exhibit of the Department of Agricultural Communication's Exhibit Design Center, explores the world of salamanders with the help of a guide, Herbie the Hellbender. Visitors to the exhibit will learn what makes a salamander a salamander, discover how amphibians differ from reptiles and read about how people can help protect salamanders. They also can play a video game and guide a hellbender through a river environment.

Content for the exhibit was provided Rod Williams and Linda Prokopy of the Purdue Department of Forestry and Natural Resources.

The exhibit debuted in January at the Culture and Heritage Museum in Rock Hill, South Carolina.

The hellbender, a declining amphibian species, is endangered in at least five states and protected or of special concern in many others. Surveys in Indiana starting in 1998 have shown that populations had not only declined but that remaining hellbenders were in particular danger. Also known as "old lasagna sides" because of noticeable wrinkles on their sides, hellbenders typically grow to as long as 24 inches. They spend up to 30 years under flat rocks in rivers and streams across Appalachia, parts of the Midwest and the northern tips of several southern states.