Ohio Conservationists Unleash Hellbenders on Local Streams

Brian Gricke via Flickr // CC BY 2.0
Brian Gricke via Flickr // CC BY 2.0 / Brian Gricke via Flickr // CC BY 2.0

They may not be as popular as creatures like pandas or butterflies, but America’s hellbenders still need our attention. The latest effort is a mass release of more than 250 of the enormous, slimy salamanders into streams all over Ohio.

Letting hellbenders go is both easier and harder than you might think. The Eastern hellbender (Cryptobranchus alleganiensis, also known as the snot otter, devil dog, or Old Lasagna Sides) is coated in slippery goo, making it harder to hold onto one than it is to set it free. But as America’s hellbender populations begin to vanish, conservationists are fighting hard and fast to get the salamanders to hang on. 

The third-largest salamander in the world, reaching up to 29 inches long, C. alleganiensis is as picky as it is peculiar. They like clear, fast-moving streams with good, flat rocks on the bottom. Male snot otters defend sprawling territories of around 1000 square feet, with their favorite stone in the middle.

Come mating season, each male digs an inviting tunnel under the rock and waits for an amorous female hellbender to approach. If she likes what she sees, she’ll drop between 150 and 450 eggs into the tunnel while the male sprays them with sperm. The male then shoos away his mate and spends the next few weeks keeping guard over his kids-to-be. In 60 to 80 days, the eggs will hatch.

Pete and Noe Woods via Flickr // CC BY 2.0

It’s that moment that has conservationists concerned. Like adults, baby hellbenders need a safe nook and clear, fresh water. But runoff from farms and housing developments is filling the water with silt, which nudges larvae out of their niches before they’re ready.

Herpetologist Greg Lipps says he knows that “siltation” isn’t a word that would alarm the average person. “It’s a lot less sexy to hear it’s mud in the water,” he told the New York Times. Sexy or not, it’s doing intense damage; the state’s hellbender populations have dropped 82 percent since the 1980s.

Lipps and other concerned scientists are doing all they can to help the hellbenders. The Ohio Hellbender Partnership is a collective of representatives from local and federal government, universities, zoos, and environmental agencies, all working to keep hellbenders around.

The freeing of 255 captive-bred young adults this week—the third and largest release in the program’s history—is just the latest of many projects. Members have built artificial shelters called “Bender Huts,” collected eggs in the wild for safe rearing in zoos, and even started a hellbender nursery at the Marion State Correctional Institute.

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