NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) – The Streamside Salamander is one of numerous Middle Tennessee creatures on the Tennessee or Federal Endangered Species List you may not know because they’re rarely visible.

David Withers, a Natural Heritage Zoologist, is with the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation or TDEC. Conservation is vital he says to help endangered animals survive and thrive. They’re part of our Middle Tennessee ecosystem. Think of it like a spider web.

“You pull one strand, uh no big deal, not a big change. You pull enough of those strands, you move enough of those populations from the landscape, then you watch that web collapse. And that’s what we’re trying to avoid,” said Withers.

That’s why TDEC and the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency (TWRA) are collaborating with the Nashville Zoo at Grassmere’s Ectotherm Team. The Zoo Team biologists are experts in cold-blooded animals like crayfish and salamanders. Because of development, Streamside Salamanders have been losing habitat and thus disappearing. So, for the past few years, the zoo has been rescuing, housing, and working on a next step.

“Last year we had success here at the Zoo at reproducing some of those animals. We were allowed to take some of those offspring eggs that we reproduced here and put them in a site where David Withers had done a lot of work to bring it back to a healthy state,” said Nick Hanna, Supervisor of Herpetology.

Also in need of help are Hellbenders. They’re a relatively unchanged salamander since the dinosaur age with only two close relatives in the world, Japan, and China.

“Hellbenders are declining in their populations. We’re really only finding old, large adults when we go out. We’re not finding any babies. We’re not finding any juveniles. So, if we don’t intervene there’s not going to be any younger animals coming up and they’re just going to disappear,” said Sherri Reinsch, Lead Herpetology Keeper. “So, we take some of the eggs. We don’t take all of them. We bring them back here. We raise them for a few years until they get past whatever critical point where they’re not surviving in the wild and then we put them back in the streams where we found them to kind of give them a head start.”

Dale McGinnity, Ectotherm Curator at Nashville Zoo, says the Hellbenders have a unique way of reproducing that makes them essential.

“They breed through lateral folds of skin in between their front and back legs. No other animal does that. If we lose that evolutionary distinctiveness, we may lose something that could really help humans, in the long run, to adapt or for medicine.”

The Zoo team’s focus is also on Nashville Crayfish. They’re on the federal and state endangered list. Zoo staff are monitoring their health in four areas around Nashville.

“They’re the dead giveaways of good water quality. If the water that they’re living in is not healthy, then what’s that going to mean for us?” said Chad Cogburn, Lead Aquatics Keeper.

Since there’s not a lot of captive breeding information about crayfish, the Zoo is working with a close relative of the Nashville Crayfish to develop a protocol to breed and care for these endangered creatures if ever needed.

“A lot of the work that we do, it’s not for us in the here and now, it’s for the future for humans as well as the species we’re working with,” said Cogburn.

“The Ectotherm Team at the Nashville Zoo are Hometown Heroes to me because they have been able to step in and work with a variety of state endangered or even federally threatened native species that often go overlooked,” said Withers.

“They’re heroes because they spend so much time and effort, and they’re so dedicated to learning how to keep these animals alive, thrive, and reproduce under human care,” said McGinnity.

So, we honor the Nashville Zoo at Grassmere’s Ectotherm Team as our News 2 Gives Back Hometown Heroes for the month of June, presented by Trevecca Nazarene University, for being instrumental in the rescuing, rearing, and reintroduction of endangered animals to their native habitat, helping them to survive and thrive.

If you’d like more information about the Nashville Zoo’s conservation efforts, click here.