Nestled in the vibrant ecosystems of East Tennessee, the Chattanooga Zoo is home to a truly remarkable creature: the Hellbender Salamander. This creature is the largest salamander species in the eastern United States, stretching up to 20 inches long and weighing as much as five pounds. The males are devoted parents, guarding and tending their young for several months. 

Hellbenders have graced our planet for over 70 million years, surviving the age of dinosaurs and several mass extinctions. They thrive in the fresh waters of East Tennessee, where they serve as crucial indicators of environmental health. Their presence in a water body suggests that it is clean enough for human use, making them an essential species for ecological monitoring. Unfortunately, their populations are declining due to habitat encroachment, climate change, and pollution. Since they breathe through their skin, hellbenders are exceptionally sensitive to changes in water temperature and quality. Warmer water, which holds less oxygen, poses a significant threat to their survival. 

When you visit the Chattanooga Zoo, you not only get a chance to witness one of nature’s unique creations but also learn about the critical conservation efforts aimed at preserving this ancient species.

Hellbender Conservation Initiative 

The Chattanooga Zoo, in active collaboration with Lee University and several other conservation partners, established the Hiwassee Hellbender Research and Education Facility in 2020. This facility engages in two primary activities: educating visitors about Eastern hellbenders and running a head start program that nurtures young hellbenders until they are large enough to survive in the wild. This innovative approach ensures the juveniles are robust enough to mature and reproduce, bolstering the species' dwindling numbers in their natural habitats. 

In March 2021, the zoo expanded its efforts by unveiling enhanced viewing and educational areas within the facility, providing visitors with an intimate look at these unique creatures and the ongoing conservation work. By January 2024, the facility had successfully nurtured 176 baby hellbenders, reintroducing 30 into the wild. This project, crucial for the survival of the largest U.S. salamander species, was facilitated by partnerships with the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, Tennessee American Water Company, and the U.S. Forest Service, furthering the zoo’s pioneering conservation initiatives. 

The Chattanooga Zoo is kicking off  May with a Salamander Saturday and will spend this month focused on SAFE (saving animals from extinction) plans and conservation awareness. Learn more about the Zoo's Conservation Awareness Days on its website.