Got Nature? Blog

Biologists with the Indiana Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and Purdue University recently documented a very young hellbender salamander, a gilled larva, in the Blue River while conducting routine surveys in south-central Indiana. This discovery is significant because over the past three to four decades, only adult hellbenders have been documented in the Blue River. The presence of a young salamander suggests that conservation efforts and rearing programs are accomplishing their goals for the recovery of this endangered species.

hellbender gilled larvae

The hellbender (Cryptobranchus alleganiensis) is a large, fully aquatic salamander. Hellbenders do not reach sexual maturity until they are 7-8 years old and require specific habitats to thrive and reproduce. Their decline statewide has been documented as far back as the early-to-mid 1900s as a result of habitat loss and poor water quality. Hellbenders play an important role in aquatic ecosystems and are indicators of clean water.

“Finding hellbender larvae is a huge benchmark of the program’s success,” said DNR’s Nate Engbrecht, the state herpetologist. “It tells us that there has been successful breeding, hatching, and recruitment in the wild. It’s a wonderful sign that captive-reared and released hellbenders are doing what we want them to do at this site.”

The hellbender found by Engbrecht and Purdue hellbender program coordinator Nick Burgmeier was a gilled larva measuring 6.5 centimeters in total length with a 5 centimeter snout-vent length. Based on its size, this animal is estimated to be eight months old.

While hellbender larvae may have been found by fisherman while seining over the years, none have been officially reported to the state herpetologist or to fisheries biologists of the Indiana DNR. The last documented juvenile was reported by William H. Kern Jr. in 1983.

hellbenders augmentation release in blue river

In the event anglers accidentally hook a hellbender, they are reminded to cut the line, let the salamander go unharmed and report the sighting to a natural resource professional.

The importance of the larval sighting is that it shows that the Help the Hellbender partnership’s conservation efforts, breeding and rearing programs are trending in a positive direction.

“Our early research on the lack of reproduction and recruitment indicated it was most likely the result of low population numbers,” said Dr. Rod Williams, director of the Help the Hellbender lab at Purdue. “For the past 12 years, Purdue and zoo partners have worked tirelessly to rear and release animals back into the wild, increase population sizes, and ultimately the chance for natural breeding. This finding, the result of nearly two decades of collective effort, signifies a milestone for our conservation program. While we have much left to do, we have evidence our approach is working.”

The Indiana Hellbender Partnership is a collaboration between the Indiana DNR and Purdue University with funding support from the Indiana DNR Nongame Wildlife Fund, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, and partners in local governments, universities, non-governmental organizations, and zoos that are working to recover the state-endangered hellbender. Developed over 15 years, the Indiana Hellbender Partnership is the largest and most comprehensive group working to recover an imperiled amphibian in Indiana.

For full article please visit 2023 FNR News and Stories: Researchers Discover Young Hellbender in Blue River.

Help the Hellbender website
Help the Hellbender Facebook page
Ask the Expert: Learn All About Hellbenders and Take a Tour, Subscribe Purdue Extension – Forestry & Natural Resources (FNR) YouTube Channel
Ask the Expert video: Help the Hellbender – Dr. Stephen Spear of The Wilds, Purdue Extension – FNR YouTube Channel
Ask the Expert video: Live with Mesker Park Zoo and Botanical Gardens – Hellbenders, Purdue Extension – FNR YouTube Channel
A Moment in the Wild video: Hellbender Hide, Purdue Extension – FNR YouTube Channel
A Moment in the Wild video: Release Moment of Hellbenders,
How Anglers and Paddlers Can Help the Hellbender video, Purdue Extension – FNR YouTube Channel
Eastern Hellbender ID Video, Purdue Extension – FNR YouTube Channel
Hellbenders Rock!, The Education Store, Purdue Extension’s resource center
Help the Hellbender, North America’s Giant Salamander, The Education Store
How Our Zoos Help Hellbenders, The Education Store
The Nature of Teaching: Adaptations for Aquatic Amphibians, The Education Store
Healthy Water, Happy Home – Lesson Plan, The Education Store
Purdue Expert: Hellbender Salamander, Purdue University News YouTube Channel
FNR Assists in First Natural Breeding of Eastern Hellbender in Captivity, Purdue FNR News & Stories
Helping the Hellbender: Mesker Park Zoo Begins Captive Breeding Efforts, Purdue Agriculture News

Indiana Department of Natural Resources (IN DNR)

Got Nature?