Connecting kids and animals, strengthening families, and inspiring people to care. That’s the mission statement of the Fort Wayne Children’s Zoo. Part of that mission involves conservation, which is why the zoo is cooperating with Purdue University and the Indiana Department of Natural Resources to head start Eastern Hellbenders.
Eastern Hellbenders are the largest salamander in North America. They live in fast-flowing rivers and have powerful legs and tails. If they find a nice spot under a rock, they’ll just live there, sometimes for more than 30 years. But, you won’t find a hellbender in the rivers here of northeast Indiana. Hellbenders generally don’t like silted water – something our area has a lot of thanks to our topsoil. Hellbenders are more widespread in the rivers in the southern part of The Hoosier State.
They reptiles have all sorts of names – mostly unpleasant – including hellbender, devil dog, snot otter, and Allegheny alligator (Hellbenders can be found as far east as Pennsylvania). Despite these evil names, hellbenders are far from it. They live solitary lives and aren’t known to bite humans. But, humans are impacting their habitat – that’s why they are threatened. As part of a partnership, the zoo cares for a group of hellbenders that have been hatched by Purdue. These little guys are just a few months old. They’ll grow much more over the next few years before they’re released into the wild.
In their natural habitats, hellbenders often eat a lot of crayfish and other small fish. Some sources say they may also eat small snakes, too. Here at the zoo, the hellbenders are fed black worms, which are high in protein. Hellbenders are also very sensitive to their surroundings, so extra care is needed to make sure they’re happy and healthy. That includes some extensive water chemistry. Zookeepers test the water every day and have a special filtration system to help reduce potential contaminates.
You won’t see these hellbenders on display at the zoo, but they play an important part in the zoo’s mission – creating a healthier planet for animals and people!