The Chattanooga Zoo has announced the release of 30 of its headstarted hellbenders into the wild in early May. The largest individuals were chosen for release in nearby creeks. The remaining hellbenders will continue to be cared for in the headstart building until late spring of 2024 when they will most likely be released.
The Hellbender Headstart Program began in the fall of 2021 as a collaboration with Matt Groves at the US Forest Service, Tennessee Wildlife Resource Agency and Dr. Freake at Lee University.
"We were able to add an expansion onto the Hiwassee Hellbender Research and Education Center to house our headstart program in a biosecure location," officials said. "This expansion was made possible with our partnership with the Lyndhurst Foundation, Tennessee American Water and the US Forest Service.
"In addition to the planned release, Dr. Freake of Lee University will be searching for juvenile hellbenders this spring. If found, the young hellbenders will be collected and brought to the zoo as part of the Headstart program. Hellbenders have a relatively high mortality rate during their first few years of life in the wild. By caring for recently hatched hellbenders, as well as hatching eggs, here at the zoo, we hope to increase their survival rates prior to release into the wild."
“We are so excited to be releasing our first set of head start hellbender juveniles this spring. It will be the culmination of all the hard work and planning over the past several years. Our dedicated animal care staff have worked hard to care for them since they were eggs. To see them go on to boost the hellbender population in east Tennessee is why we do the work that we do,” said Lacey Hickle, general curator.
Officials said, "Hellbenders are large, aquatic salamanders native to North America. They are an important part of freshwater ecosystems and play a crucial role in maintaining the health of their habitats. Unfortunately, hellbenders are now threatened due to habitat loss, pollution and disease. The Chattanooga Zoo's Hellbender conservation program has been successful in raising these animals in human care, with plans to continue the cycle with new eggs in the fall."