Predator-recognition training: A conservation strategy to increase postrelease survival of hellbenders in head-starting programs


For species with declining populations, captive rearing with subsequent release into natural habitats ("head-starting") is often used as part of a conservation strategy. One challenge to head-starting programs is that head-started individuals can suffer high rates of postrelease predation. Head-starting programs are currently being established for hellbenders (Cryptobrancus alleganeinsis), large aquatic salamanders that are experiencing population declines throughout much of the species' range. Although hellbenders have innate recognition of many predators, inexperienced juveniles show only weak recognition of introduced trout. We used a classical conditioning protocol to train captive-reared hellbender larvae to show fright responses to the scent of trout. We exposed hellbender larvae to trout-scented water plus a hellbender distress secretion during training trials. In a subsequent test, these larvae responded to trout cues alone with a fright response; control larvae that were trained with the trout scent plus a blank control did not show a fright response to the trout cues. Learning was specific to trout because trained larvae did not respond to water that had been scented by a suckermouth catfish. Although a number of details remain to be addressed concerning standardized procedures, we recommend that head-starting programs for hellbenders include trout-recognition training.



Document Type





Associative learning, Crytobranchus, Oncorhynchus, Salamander, Trout

Publication Date


Journal Title

Zoo Biology