WV Wildlife: Releasing Hellbenders back to their native waters

Hellbenders are the largest salamanders in the western hemisphere. Their numbers have declined across much of the eastern United States due to habitat loss and other factors, including here in West Virginia. (WCHS/WVAH)

You might call them modern day dinosaurs!

They've at least been around for almost that long, and they call it home right here in West Virginia.

Hellbenders are the largest salamander in the western hemisphere!

Unfortunately, though, their numbers have been rapidly declining over the years.

That's why Dr. Joe Greathouse--assistant professor of biology at West Liberty University and Oglebay Zoo director--and many others, is trying to do something about it.

"Today, we're placing 12 hellbenders back into this portion of Buffalo Creek. We're trying to bring the populations back, because we're putting more animals back in that are larger size--that will be less prone to predation. So, our goal today is to find an appropriate sized rock with an opening that's going to face downstream or to the side of the stream. We slide the hellbender back in there and make sure they don't come out", said Dr. Greathouse.

That's how the hellbender likes it. In fact, they rarely move from their cozy rock of choice.

These hellbenders that are placed back into their native waters have a chip implanted in them; that way, Dr. Greathouse and other biologists can monitor their movements and habits.

This project all started in 2010, when Dr. Greathouse and DNR biologists found that hellbenders only occupied less than half of the streams they used to live in across West Virginia.

That was worrisome, especially considering that only 1 in 500 eggs makes it to adulthood in the wild!

That’s when the decision was made, the decision to find hellbenders still living across streams in the northern panhandle—and to take their eggs back to the lab.

"So what we decided was--we began to harvest eggs from nests of hellbenders to try to raise them as a conservation project. This enables us an incredible opportunity to raise animals in the Williams Company swim lab at West Liberty University and put them back in the wild. Now, it takes us about 4 years to do that", said Dr. Greathouse.

It's a lot of hard work for professors and students alike, but this gives these really interesting amphibians--who breathe through their skin--a much better chance at thriving. The success rate of these eggs in the lab were about 90%! It takes a while for the little ones to grow large enough to be released into nearby streams, but it’s well worth it. Dr. Greathouse explains.

"If we can continue to do this--and put out 30 to 40 hellbenders across our imperiled streams and rivers in this state, we plan on bringing the populations of really this incredible species back up".

So far, it looks like these transplanted hellbenders are doing very well; some of the early data shows that their 1-year survival rates are nearly double of what's considered ‘good’.

It means a lot to Dr. Greathouse and everyone involved.

"When we see that type of success--that's really self-gratifying to us, because we know we're actively playing a strong role in conservation".

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