by Khrista Watson

I woke up before sun-up on the Saturday of April 11th and drove the hour and forty minute drive from my home base in Evansville to O’Bannon Woods State Park near Corydon Indiana to watch the 12th annual Hellbender Hustle and Woodrat Walk 5K.

Some of you may be wondering, “What exactly is a hellbender?” (My boyfriend thought it was a new character from the Last Airbender series) Well, hellbenders are large aquatic salamanders. They are the largest salamander in North America and can live up to 30 years. And they are also a federally listed endangered species. Here is a model of a hellbender, since sightings of live hellbenders are so rare, there weren’t’t any live ones in attendance this day.

The hellbenders have long been in trouble, do to habit degradation and loss mostly. Twelve years ago the Nature Conservancy of Indiana put on the first Hellbender Hustle 5K to raise awareness and support for the salamander. The race has since been handed over to the State Parks department and is still hosted annually at O’Bannon Woods State Park.

At 9:00 local time, the group of racers gathered at the starting line for a shot-gun start (fired by site Naturalist Jarrett Manek). The crowd was diverse. The youngest registered racer was four years old, the oldest over seventy, and there were plenty all ages in between. Families came to race together as well as groups of friends, and even racers that have been in attendance since the first race.

(A family of racers, Mom and Dad were participants, the kiddos brought cow bells to cheer the racers through the finish line.)

I did not myself race, but moseyed back down to near the finish line to hang out with some of the nature center’s residents. Mainly to oxen that are part of the farmstead and working hay press that is on the property.

Okay. So when I said there weren’t’t any live hellbenders in attendance, I sort of lied. Herbie was there.

(Herbie the Hellbender and I posing for a picture together)

Herbie is a member of Purdue Extension Services and the Purdue Student Chapter of Environmental Education. Purdue staff and students were on hand to spread the word about hellbender conservation and provide crafts and activities for the racers as they finished. For more information on their work you can check out helpthehellbender.org.

(The Purdue group also brought with them a larval salamander. Heehee.)

The Hoosier Herpetological Society was also there with some real (sorry Herbie) amphibians including both local salamanders and and Mexican axolotl that closely resembles our native hellbenders.

After the race Purdue was hosting a Feast like a Hellbender lunch including Cajun and Creole foods made with the hellbenders favorite snack – crayfish. Unfortunately, the smell of cooked crayfish does weird things to my stomach so I didn’t stick around to partake in the feast.