Hellbenders (Cryptobranchus alleganiensis) are giant aquatic salamanders from eastern North America. We're talking really giant here: up to a couple feet. They don't have anything on their Asian cousins though. If you want to see humongous salamanders, check out Andrias japonicus and A. davidianus. But we digress. For more information on hellbenders, check out http://www.hellbenders.org.
These incredible creatures are currently in decline over much of their range, and has been labelled a species of special concern in New York. As populations age, not all of them have continued to reproduce themselves. Enter the Buffalo Zoo headstarting program. Several hundred eggs collected in western New York found their way to the Buffalo Zoo, where most of them hatched. Keepers then raised the baby benders in captivity until they put on enough size to hopefully have a better chance at surviving in the wild. This year was the first batch to go back into their native watershed, and we were honored to be there for their release. Many thanks to Ken Roblee and the Buffalo Zoo for letting us take part.
All told, we found fourteen wild hellbenders, way more than usual. This year was strange compared to previous years in that most of the ones we saw were out walking on the bottom of the stream rather than hidden under rocks. We speculated that a possible reason for their being out was the impending breeding season. It was only August 26, normally early enough to not interfere with breeding, but who knows.
Next year we'll head back to see how the headstarted young ones are doing!
Photos: Jessica Tingle