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Purdue Hellbender Researchers Focusing On Endangered Salamander's Habitat

Rob George

Leaders of an effort to repatriate an endangered salamander to Indiana's Blue River say they're ready for the next step -- attempting to make the state's waterways habitable to the animals once again. 

While area conservationists' educational materials frequently paint the hellbender as a cute, smiling cartoon amphibian, the real deal is less adorable but arguably more intriguing.

The largest salamander on the continent, hellbenders are about the size of an adult's forearm, with ruffled skin on their sides and a wide mouth that resembles a large, satisfied grin. On land, they resemble a particularly slimy log. Under water, though, they tumble and somersault like professional acrobats. 

Hellbenders are steadily disappearing from the nation's streams, thanks to chemical pollutants and silt runoff disturbing the places where their eggs hatch and mature. In Indiana, they're found exclusively in the Blue River, which originates in Washington County and flows south to the Ohio River.

Since 2013, officials at Lafayette's Columbian Park Zoo, along with scientists from Purdue University, have been raising around 200 baby hellbender salamanders they hope to eventually release back into the wild. The conservation effort began at Purdue eight years ago. But they say the painstaking work of researching and rearing of the animals will be futile if theres ultimately nowhere for them to live in the wild. Repatriation efforts don't mean much in an animal can't someday perpetuate its species on its own. 

Purdue professor Rod Williams, who spearheads the university's hellbender research, says that's why the Help the Hellbender effort will ramp up education efforts where the salamander actually lives, in the southern region of the state. He's setting up meetings with the state's Departments of Environmental Management and Natural Resources and state and local officials, as well as landowners and farmers, in the hopes of creating a unified conservation plan for the animals. 

"Our ultimate goals would be to make sure we can work with our partners down in Southern Indiana and landowners and the community down there to continue to improve water quality, so that eventually these hellbenders and these species and the aquatic systems in general can begin to recover and take more a form of their natural state," Williams says.

He says the new focus is going to be a years-long effort.

"We're really focused on this extension and outreach mission right now," he says. "That's a big push that we're doing for the next four years. 

The researchers have had casual interactions with landowners near the Blue River already. In order to collect specimens for their research, they need access to private waterways on private property. This gives researchers an opportunity to educate people about water pollution and conservation practices. 

Graduate student Erin Kenision, who calls herself the "baby mama" of Purdue's 200 captive baby juvenile salamanders, says she's seen a positive reaction during these casual encounters. 

"Teaching them those practices and having them feel like they're part of the work that's being done, I think they really latch on to the possibility of changes and learning more about what they can do," she says. 

"Usually they’re a great source for historical memories and sightings," Kenison says, "They know, 'we used to have this many hellbenders here', and usually people are very supportive."

Williams says his graduate students are also investigating other Indiana waterways to see if any would also make a suitable home for the salamanders. 

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