The Hiwassee Hellbender Research and Education Facility at the Chattanooga Zoo is now open to the public.

The Eastern hellbender is a large salamander species native to the waters of Appalachia. However, because they breathe through their skin, they are highly susceptible to environmental toxins. Once-dense populations of hellbenders from North Georgia to Southern New York are now sparse.

Six adult hellbenders have been moved into the new research facility at the zoo about 70 miles north of Rome, up Interstate 75.

Their enclosure features a reverse-osmosis stream with cool, clear water running across a bed of river rock, mimicking their natural habitat. Inside the facility is also a fully equipped classroom and keeper workspace.

Visitors will be able to learn more about hellbenders up close, and witness research being conducted in real time through large viewing windows. There will also be free tours as availability allows.

Since 2011, the Chattanooga Zoo has housed hellbenders, and participated in research and partnerships with entities like Lee University and the Nashville Zoo.

“As we continue to learn more about this amazing animal, we are learning what conservation efforts are necessary to its survival,” General Curator Lacey Hickle said in a release.

Zoo President and CEO Darde Long singled out the Lyndhurst Foundation, the Riverview Foundation, Tennessee American Water, and Dr. Mickey & Beth Myers as donors essential to the construction of the facility.

The Chattanooga Zoo is open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Due to the pandemic, tickets are limited and must be purchased in advance online at ChattZoo.org.

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