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Ozark Hellbender Salamander Success!

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The Saint Louis Zoo and the Missouri Department of Conservation today announced that Ozark hellbenders have been successfully bred in captivity - a first for either of the two subspecies of hellbender. This decade-long collaboration has yielded 63 baby hellbenders so far. Both parents are wild bred: the male has been at the zoo for the past two years and the female arrived this past September.

The first hatched on November 15, and approximately 120 additional eggs are expected to hatch within the next week. Behind the scenes in the Zoo’s Herpetarium, the eggs are maintained in climate and water quality-controlled trays. For 45 to 60 days after emerging, the tiny larvae will retain their yolk sack for nutrients and move very little as they continue developing. They will begin to grow legs, and eventually lose their external gills by the time they reach 1.5 to 2 years of age. 

Once the captive-bred larvae are 3 to 8-years-old, they can then be released into their natural habitat the Ozark aquatic ecosystem. They are kept in elaborate facilities that recreate the ideal environment in which they can thrive in during that time. 

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Hellbender at two weeks old_11-29-11_MarkWanner_SaintLouisZoo_lowres
Photo Credit: MarkWanner/SaintLouisZoo

Rivers in south-central Missouri and adjacent Arkansas once supported up to 8,000 Ozark hellbenders.  Today, fewer than 600 exist in the world—so few that the amphibian was added in October 2011 to the federal endangered species list. Due to these drastic declines, captive propagation became a priority in the long-term recovery of the species. 

Also known by the colloquial names of “snot otter” and “old lasagna sides,” the adult hellbender is one of the largest species of salamanders in North America, with its closest relatives being the giant salamanders of China and Japan, which can reach five feet in length.

With skin that is brown with black splotches, the Ozark hellbender has a slippery, flattened body that moves easily through water and can squeeze under rocks on the bottom of streams. 

Like a Canary in a Coal Mine

Requiring cool, clean running water, the Ozark hellbender is also an important barometer of the overall health of that ecosystem—an aquatic “canary in a coal mine.”

“Capillaries near the surface of the hellbender’s skin absorb oxygen directly from the water – as well as hormones, heavy metals and pesticides,” said Jeff Ettling, Saint Louis Zoo curator of herpetology and aquatics.  “If there is something in the water that is causing the hellbender population to decline, it can also be affecting the citizens who call the area home.”

“We have a 15- to 20-year window to reverse this decline,” added Missouri Department of Conservation Herpetologist Jeff Briggler, who cites a number of reasons for that decline from loss of habitat to pollution to disease to illegal capture and overseas sale of the hellbender for pets.  “We don’t want the animal disappearing on our watch.”