BRONX, NEW YORK – April 26, 2017 – Since 2009, staff at WCS’s (Wildlife Conservation Society) Bronx Zoo has been working behind the scenes to save the Eastern hellbender (Cryptobranchus alleganiensis). Now, this elusive salamander can be seen in a new exhibit in the zoo’s historic Reptile House.


The Eastern hellbender is a large species of salamander native to freshwater rivers and streams in Eastern North America. Adults are nearly two feet long and there are only two larger salamander species known to exist – the Japanese and Chinese giant salamanders – both can grow to up to six feet long.


Hellbenders have a host of colorful nicknames: snot otters, Allegheny alligators, devil dogs, and old lasagna sides, to name a few. They are fully aquatic and are typically found in rocky, swift-flowing streams, hiding beneath large rocks in shallow rapids. They have flattened heads and bodies, small eyes, and slimy, wrinkly skin. They are typically a brown or reddish-brown color with a pale underbelly. A narrow edge along the dorsal surface of their tails helps propel them through water.


New York State lists the hellbender as a species of Special Concern. Populations are declining due to several factors including over chytrid fungus, water pollution, and habitat destruction.


Since 2009, the Bronx Zoo has been working in collaboration with the Buffalo Zoo and the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) on a head-start program designed to bolster hellbender populations in New York State.  Herpetology Department staff have raised young hellbenders hatched from eggs that were collected from the wild in an off-exhibit, bio-secure room in the Bronx Zoo’s Amphibian Propagation Center.  The eggs are collected to ensure a greater survivability of the larvae.  Larvae are cared for at the zoo until they grow to a large enough size to avoid predation when released back into the wild.  At that point they are returned to the streams where they were collected.


In 2013, 38 Eastern hellbenders raised at the Bronx Zoo were released into the Allegheny River Basin in Western New York where they were collected by the New York State DEC in 2009. Before being returned to the wild, each animal was tagged under the skin with a tiny chip that can be used for identification of individuals during future surveys and health assessments.


In 2014, Bronx Zoo joined hellbender conservation efforts with the Upper Susquehanna Conservation Alliance. The group’s goal is to conserve wild hellbender populations in the Susquehanna Watershed of New York and Pennsylvania. In the fall of 2014 wild collected eggs from that river system were collected and hatched at the zoo where staff have been raising 103 hellbenders for future release.