As an amphibian, hellbenders are R-selected breeders, meaning they lay a large number of eggs and only a small portion of those survive to adulthood. Male hellbenders will guard the eggs until they hatch (pictured to the left), but the hellbenders will not reach adulthood until they are 5 to 8 years old. This long life cycle results in many larval hellbenders being unable to survive to adulthood, especially with additional environmental stressors like poor water quality and predation by fish. This is where captive rearing becomes especially useful, as hellbenders are raised in controlled environments until they reach adulthood. However, captive rearing comes with its own challenges.
Recreating Hellbender habitat
Hellbenders require cold, clean, fast flowing water similar to that which is found in the wild. Eggs are kept in tanks where water flow is continuous in order to prevent disease transmission between eggs. Tanks are also kept in rooms at about 15 degrees Celsius. Hellbenders are also provided with cover in the form of large rocks and tunnels in order to recreate the large rocks they typically hide under in the wild, similiar to those pictured on the right. Hellbenders are fed crayfish, which is their primary food source in the wild.
Reintroduction into the wild
Despite being raised in captivity, released hellbenders will still face some challenges when being reintroduced. They will have to scout out good locations for feeding and resting and develop their own home range. A river is quite different from a tank in a lab, with environmental changes like temperatures changes and weather, competition for food, water currents, and predation all being new introduced conditions. Research is being conducted in order to stimulate these conditions in captivity and increase survival after release.