FORT WAYNE, Ind. ( WANE) – Saving an endangered species in Indiana. Hellbender salamanders are now only found in the Blue River in southern Indiana. Over the last few decades their numbers have been dwindling.

Purdue University and the Indiana Department of Natural Resources spearheaded efforts to replenish the population and the Fort Wayne Children’s Zoo is helping.

“Purdue did some surveys and found 100 or less in the river and they can live to be 30 years old. They were finding big adults and no young. So, the adults may be spaced apart so there’s not much breeding going on,” Dave Messmann, an Animal Care Specialist at the Fort Wayne Children’s Zoo, said. “They’re state endangered but not federally endangered.”

A Purdue professor approached the zoo in 2014 about joining the Hellbender Head Start Program. Now the zoo is raising 326 Hellbender salamanders to eventually release back into the wild.

Purdue will find eggs in the wild, bring them to Fort Wayne and then the zoo will hatch them and raise them.

It takes several years to grow them big enough to be released. The Fort Wayne zoo’s already released 59 Hellbenders back to the Blue River. Across the state, the conservation program has released around 600 Hellbenders into the river.

“You get to see where they come from. That brown color is the exact color of the bottom of the river. They’re totally camouflaged. They’re predators but also prey, so camouflage is important,” Messmann said.

Hellbenders are the largest salamander in North America.

Model of a full-grown Hellbender

“They breath through their skin and they have flaps all around them to help them absorb more oxygen,” Messmann said.

The Hellbenders in the Fort Wayne zoo arrived as eggs last September. They hatched in October or November. The zoo is also part of a growth study at Purdue and 100 of the Hellbenders are in special tanks to track their progress as they grow up to return to the river. Usually they are released around age five or six. But, Messmann said it could be sooner in Fort Wayne.

“The reason we’re doing a growth study is we’re growing them up in two years. That’s faster than some were doing it in four or five, so part of the study is do animals that grow up in two years do as well as when they’re released as animals who grew up in four or five,” he said.

Messmann and other keepers check the Hellbender tanks every day. They eat black worms, mysis shrimp and krill and frozen crawfish, cut up for them to easily eat it.

“They’re restaurant grade, so they’re large. The adults will eat crawfish in the wild,” Messmann said.

While Messmann works to raise the Hellbenders for years to save their species, he’s not sad to release them to their new homes.

“I like it. They’re the only animal we release back to the wild,” he said.

While they aren’t out as an exhibit, zoo guests can see the Hellbenders in the Conservation Wild Encounter.

And the efforts across the state seem to be working! The DNR announced in July that it found a young Hellbender in the Blue River, which is a sign that the salamanders are hatching and growing on their own in the wild again.

Wild on WANE airs on WANE 15 every Tuesday at 5 p.m. and on First News Saturday from 7 a.m. – 9 a.m.