Devil dog, mud devil, hellbender … Huh?

Shane titus

Today you’re hearing from Shane Titus, the fisheries manager for the Seneca Nation of Indians in Salamanca, New York.

Seven years ago, I had never even heard of an eastern hellbender, but now I spend a good bit of my time with them at our Seneca Nation of Indians rearing facility.

Don’t let the name fool you. While they are intriguing and bizarre, these are docile aquatic salamanders that live in freshwater rivers and streams within the eastern U.S. They’re pretty rare and are a species of special concern in New York State.

These remarkable salamanders have been around for over 65 million years, but they’ve been decreasing through the years due to loss of habitat, poor water quality, predation and the introduction of invasive prey species (like the rusty crayfish). Being amphibians, poor water quality affects the hellbenders extremities and skin, similar to how it affects frogs. Healthy hellbenders in a watershed are an indication of good water quality. Unhealthy and low populations can be an indication of a serious water quality issue to the public, who use the water resources for domestic consumption.

DID YOU KNOW?An eastern hellbender. Credit: Lori Pruitt/USFWS
Hellbenders spend their entire lifespan in the water, receiving oxygen through capillaries located in their skin folds (running along the sides of their bodies, between the front and back legs). These amazing creatures ambush predators, feeding mainly on crawfish and small minnows. Hellbenders can grow to be 29 inches (with rumors of larger ones being seen or caught by anglers).

Eastern hellbenders can be found in the Allegany and Susquehanna river systems in New York, and the largest populations are located in the Allegany River watershed on the Territory of the Seneca Nation of Indians (SNI). Research by the SNI Fish & Wildlife Department, New York State Department of Conservation and the Buffalo Zoo showed that the Allegany populations had decreased by 70 percent since the 1970s, and juveniles were all but nonexistent.

We were greatly concerned. Without juveniles to replace mature hellbenders (after their life cycles ended), there would be no natural reproduction within our river system. So the SNI tribal council provided funding to construct a hellbender rearing facility that would collect eggs, raise the larvae to juveniles and release them into the Allegany River.

The current range of the eastern hellbender. Map from New York State Department of Environmental Conservation.

The current range of the eastern hellbender. Map from New York State Department of Environmental Conservation.

We’ve learned a lot since it opened in 2010:

  • The main difficulty to raising hellbenders is maintaining the water quality, which we do with a battery of water filters and air pumps. We want to mimic natural conditions as much as possible.
  • If you know where the hellbenders are, it’s not too difficult to collect eggs (don’t try this at home). They lay them on the underside of flat rocks. We make sure to be careful in turning rocks and leave the area in the condition we found it.
  • Hellbender larvae are very delicate, and we have lost a number of them at this stage. Rather than keeping them together, we’ve starting separating the young to better monitor them.
  • We’ve been looking for good places for our first release of hellbenders, and we have plans to release a group this year downstream of Salamanca. We’ll monitor them daily with radio telemetry tags and also with scuba diving visits.

Thanks to the efforts of the SNI Fish & Wildlife Department, the eastern hellbender now has a guardian to help insure that this species will always have a place within our ecosystem.

The hellbender facility is located at 3689 Center Rd Salamanca, NY, 14779 and is open to the public for viewing; call us (716) 945-6421to set up a tour or for any questions.

Read a related article from The Buffalo News or check out this video from the Seneca Nation of Indians.

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