TWRA partners with Tennessee State University, Nashville Zoo to help endangered species

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) – Many of you may have never heard of the “Eastern Hellbender” salamander, an amphibian common to some rivers and streams here in Middle Tennessee.

The Tennessee Wildlife Resource Agency has designated them as an endangered species in the state.

“Populations in East Tennessee from the Hiawassee up north into upper parts of East Tennessee, those populations are doing quite well,” explained Josh Campbell, TWRA Chief of Biodiversity. “But here in Middle Tennessee that is not the case, especially here on this stream where we just have a lot of large and older individuals. So, we’ve got one age class or size class here in this population. So, slowly without any type of work or augmentation, this population could be lost.”

So the TWRA, along with the Nashville Zoo and Tennessee State University have joined forces to try and increase their populations.

Six years ago, the Nashville Zoo took in a number of Eastern Hellbender eggs from the Little Buffalo River System in South Middle Tennessee. They hatched them, and have been raising them ever since, even bringing in their natural diet from that same habitat, crayfish, abundant in the Little Buffalo River.

Since they have been finding mostly older adults and nests with eggs in them but few hatchlings, many of the hatched young were not surviving.

“So by taking the eggs, raising them for a few years until they get to a bigger size where they can miss that critical period, we can put them back out,” explained Sherry Reinsch, Nashville Zoo Lead Herpetology keeper.

So in mid-June, the Nashville Zoo along with biologists and researchers from the TWRA and Tennessee State University released 13 of the 6-year-old hellbenders back into the river. A second release of 19 animals was scheduled for later in the month. Each Hellbender being released is fitted with a radio transmitter and an identification tag so researchers can track the progress of each animal. With future studies, they can hopefully find out what is causing the young ones not to survive.

“Unfortunately, human development in forms of agriculture and urbanization do not mesh well with hellbender populations,” according to Bill Sutton, Tennessee State University Associate Professor. “They’re pretty intolerant of any kind of thing that’s upstream in the watershed that impacts sedimentation or anything that affects erosion of the habitats.”

As they release the new Hellbenders, they will be tracking and studying if they survive and where they go to determine what has caused the decline.

Whatever the result, the whole process has been rewarding to the researchers.

“When you get to put wildlife back where it once was or to help facilitate restorations of populations, it’s always exciting,” Campbell said.

“Today I was able to release one, which is really exciting,” exclaimed Mallory Tate, TWRA Region 2 Wildlife Survey Manager. “It’s been months and years of work for some people. So to finally see these animals being released, it was a little tricky because they were ready to go, but it was very exciting.”

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