Hellbender Research

Purdue researchers have been studying hellbenders in Indiana since 2007.  They have used a combination of field and laboratory techniques to better understand the ecology and overall health of Eastern hellbenders in Indiana and provide valuable information for use in conservation programs. Their research has covered various aspects of hellbender biology, including population status, habitat use and movements, overall health, water quality, and genetic variability. 

Recently completed research on Indiana’s hellbender population has revealed that numbers and densities are critically low. Indiana’s hellbender population was found to be composed almost exclusively of old individuals, with little successful reproduction during the last 20 years. Separate investigations of water quality and health of individuals provided little evidence that either was compromised, thus neither was a likely cause for the lack of reproduction in Indiana. However, mark/recapture and telemetry data suggest that hellbenders were scattered throughout the river with little overlap among individuals.  These isolated individuals may not come into contact with other hellbenders during breeding season, and may play a part in the lack of reproduction throughout the river.     

Researchers are now in the process of locally increasing hellbender population numbers using a combination of translocations and a captive rearing and head-starting program (raising larval hellbenders until they are large enough to avoid most predators upon their release back into the river). Intensive tracking of marked hellbenders has revealed no extensive post-translocation movements by individuals, indicating preliminary success of the translocations.   Researchers have also documented natural reproduction during the last two years within the river.  Ultimately, the results of this research may influence management decisions to repatriate Eastern hellbenders not only in Indiana, but throughout much of their former range.  To learn more about the Indiana Hellbender research and collaborations between Purdue, The Nature Conservancy and Indiana Department of Natural Resources please visit Help the Hellbender.