Status and Conservation of the Eastern Hellbender in Ohio 

The Eastern Hellbender (Cryptobranchus alleganiensis alleganiensis) is one of only two completely aquatic salamanders found in the state of Ohio.  Within the state it has historically been found in nearly all of the major systems draining into the Ohio River. 

Previous surveys conducted during the drought years of the mid-1980s and in 2000 resulted in the capture of 112 individuals from 15 waterways, more than 50% of the total number of documented hellbender occurrences in the state at the time.  At the conclusion of these initial surveys, the species was listed as endangered by the Ohio Division of Wildlife. 

The current survey began in 2006 and has included mark-recapture, examination of the prevalence of the amphibian chytrid fungus (Bd) on hellbenders and in hellbender habitat, and assessments of habitat quality. 

A total of 1487 person-hours spent searching has resulted in 89 observations of 79 individual hellbenders in 11 Ohio waterways.  The number of hellbenders captured per person-hour searching has declined by nearly 82% in the waterways where they were previously documented, with no hellbenders detected in seven of the 15 (47%) waterways.

Hellbenders were found in four waterways where they were not previously detected or where surveys were not previously performed.  In seven of the 11 (64%) waterways, no individuals <45 cm were encountered, and together with the low relative abundance, these populations do not appear to be viable.  The lack of successful recruitment of young into populations appears to be the mechanism of hellbender decline in both Ohio and elsewhere throughout the species' range. 

Skin swabs of hellbenders and sympatric amphibians found “possible positives” for infection by Bd (amphibian chytrid fungus) on only three Common Mudpuppies (Necturus maculosus maculosus).  All water tests for Bd were negative.  Previous sampling by The Wilds detected Bd on one hellbender, and the pathogen seems to be widespread in many parts of the state.

(Video of hellbender peptides being collected by Dr. Brandon Sheafor, formerly of Mt. Union College.) 

Hellbender Peptide Collection

Analysis of organic compounds in waterways with extant, declining, and presumed extirpated hellbender populations do not support the hypothesis of a novel pollutant causing declines, although amphibians often respond unpredictably to the interactions of multiple stressors.  At most sites tested, one or two phthalate compounds were detected, raising concern about the potential endocrine disrupting properties of these chemicals.

In order to maintain viable populations of the hellbender in Ohio, four recommendations are made:
1) Support conservation efforts in areas where viable populations currently exist;
2) Increase the use of existing conservation programs to protect hellbender habitat;
3) Investigate the feasibility of a repatriation/augmentation program for hellbenders in Ohio; and,
4) Continue to conduct mark-recapture surveys to monitor populations, collect demographic and growth data, and provide
on-the-ground outreach and early detection of potential threats.

In 2011, we are beginning a project to collect hellbender eggs which will be raised at The Columbus Zoo for release back into the wild.

This project is supported by the Ohio Division of Wildlife with funds donated through the Wildlife Diversity and Endangered Species Program, and through sales of the Wildlife Legacy Stamp.

Eastern Hellbender

Read more about the Eastern Hellbender in Ohio.

(Underwater video of an Eastern Hellbender in an Ohio stream.)