NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) — The largest salamander in North America is getting some help from Middle Tennessee animal experts.

The Hellbender salamander has been dwindling in numbers since the 1980s. The Nashville Zoo, Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency (TWRA), and surrounding universities took matters into their own hands to help the critters flourish again.

“We decided to start a head start program so that we could take some eggs from the wild, raise them up for three to six years, and then release them once they are past a critical point in their life cycle,” said Sherri Reinsch, Nashville Zoo’s lead Herpetology Keeper.

But it takes more than just a few steps to have a successful release back into the wild for this unusual critter.

“We did do some prerelease testing, environmental DNA testing,” said Becky Hardman. “We also had some samples from some resident animals.”

And while prerelease testing is important, Hardman said they also conducted studies on what condition hellbenders need to be in for a release. “For a healthy hellbender, you need a less stressed hellbender.”

But what about when stress can’t be ignored? Hardman explained, “That’s where we put some implants in them to see if these implants that deliver, what I’m calling a prophylactic drug that prevents overgrowth of a fungus during the stressful moment. Once they get over that hump that implant will eventually dissipate, and they can live their life.”

And living their best life in a spot where they can thrive is important to landowners and hellbenders alike. Hopes are high that this will be a successful release and the zoo has set up ways to track how they are doing.

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“They also have radio trackers in them, so we’ll track them a few times a week, until their batteries die essentially to see how they are moving, how are they living, and if we can get our hands back on them to get weights and lengths,” said Reinsch. “We’ll do some disease testing to see like how healthy are they and how well they are doing in the wild.”