Toledo Zoo to release hellbenders... but don't be scared

Toledo Zoo to release hellbenders... but don't be scared

TOLEDO, OH (WTOL) - The Toledo Zoo, along with the Ohio Hellbender Partnership, is releasing 230 hellbenders into their historic native streams.

Eastern hellbenders are the largest North American salamander... and they look like a frog, snake and fish merged together. Not scary at all.

According to the zoo, hellbenders spend their entire lives under rocks (thank goodness), eating crayfish and insects... all the while breathing through gill-like folds in their skin.

The giant salamanders are native to the Ohio River watershed and come in a variety of brown colors. They have large tails and four legs. The species is endangered due to pollution, sedimentation and habitat loss.

Kent Bekker, the director of conservation research at the zoo, says the only way to get these hellbenders back in the water is through programs like this one.

"Hellbenders are a great predictor of a high quality stream habit here in Ohio," said Bekker. "So historically, some of these animals were eliminated from reaches of stream especially before the clean water act due to pollution and things like that."

The hellbenders that will be released were raised mostly at the Toledo Zoo, along with 50 others that were raised by the Columbus Zoo. This is the sixth year the Zoo has worked with the Ohio Hellbender Partnership to raise and release these state-endangered amphibians.

"In the captive head start program, we are limited by space for rearing hellbenders," said Bekker. "The more space, the more hellbenders. So that is why the Toledo Zoo has the hellbender conservation center here in a modular fashion."

The hellbenders will be three years old and about nine inches long when they're released - that's old and big enough to avoid predators. And experts will be able to track their every move using microchips.

According to John Navarro, aquatic diversity program administrator with the Ohio Department of Natural Resources Division of Wildlife: "The goal of this project is to establish multiple self-sustaining populations so they can be removed from the state endangered species list."

The Toledo Zoo and Ohio Hellbender Partnership have reared more than 800 hellbenders and released more than 150 into their native habitat.

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