What is a hellbender?
A hellbender is a large species of salamander native to Indiana waterways. Also called snot otters, devil dogs, or the descriptive "old lasagna sides", hellbenders are a species rarely seen, but which play a key role in freshwater ecosystems.
As a fully aquatic salamander, hellbenders require clear, cool water for survival. The cannot survive in waterways that suffer from pollution and heavy sedimentation. This makes their presence an important indicator of water quality.
Why are hellbenders in danger?
Hellbenders are extremely sensitive animals. In the past few decades their wild populations have crashed in Indiana and they are now found only in a small section of the Blue River in southern Indiana. This is due to several factors. Run-off of chemical pesticides and herbicides from urban areas and agricultural fields has created water quality issues for hellbenders and other freshwater species. Sedimentation from soil erosion creates muddy river bottoms, which is a big problem. Hellbenders need access to rocky crevices where eggs can be laid and juveniles can shelter from predators. Sedimentation deprives them of this critical habitat component.
How is the Zoo working to conserve hellbenders?
Columbian Park Zoo is one of several zoos that are partnering with the DNR and Purdue University on a conservation program that will help increase the survival rates of hellbenders in the wild. We received three three-year old hellbenders, or giant salamanders, from Purdue University in May 2015 and will house the hellbenders for approximately two years after which Dr. Williams, Associate Professor of Wildlife Science and leader of the university’s hellbender effort, will release them back into their Southern Indiana habitat to be tracked. Hellbender populations are decreasing in the wild partly due to habitat degradation, low-quality water and infectious disease. To help with increasing awareness of this declining species we are incorporating hellbender conservation messages into our education programs. The Columbian Park Zoo held 'Help the Hellbender Day' in 2016 and 2017, to celebrate the species and educate the community on ways they can help protect this animal. In addition, a special outreach presentation was provided to all Lafayette School Corporation sixth grade students to help raise their awareness about this less familiar species and their own impact on its survival, and the success of the program was measured through data collection. Results from this educational outreach program were published in the International Zoo Educators Association Journal in 2016 (http://izea.net/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/IZEJournal2016-printed.pdf).
How can I help hellbenders?
It's easy! Even though hellbenders don't currently live in the Greater Lafayette area, it's important to understand that our water and land use practices here can still impact wildlife through the process of watershed. All of the rainwater that falls on us here eventually makes its way through the stream and river systems back to the sea. In this journey, contaminants, like chemicals and sediment, travel along with the water. Here are some things you can do at home to help conserve our waterways:
1. Know your storm sewers. Storm sewers carry rain (or hose) runoff directly to the river systems. In contrast your household drains go through water treatment plants before water is returned to the water cycle. Never dump anything into a storm sewer!
2. Avoid using chemicals in your home and yard. Seek natural pest and weed control measures instead. Support organic agriculture which limits chemical use and promotes responsible land use practices.
3. Include strategic plantings in your landscape. Create planted barriers near storm sewers and curbs to help reduce soil erosion. Natural pest-repelling plants reduces the need for chemical use.
4. Scoop the poop and rake the leaves. Decomposing organic matter, like leaves and pet waste, increases sedimentation when it gets into storm sewers.
5. Use the carwash. Soap and other car cleaning chemicals wash down your driveway and directly into the storm sewers. Use the self-service bay at a carwash instead, where the runoff will go to a water treatment facility first.