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Nashville Zoo Makes History with First Captive Breeding of Eastern Hellbenders!


Nashville Zoo is pleased to announce the captive breeding of Eastern Hellbenders for the first time as well as the first controlled breeding of any Hellbenders using biotechnology. The two Hellbenders were successfully hatched from eggs produced and artificially fertilized from the Zoo’s long-term captive animals.

“The successful hatching of the two Hellbenders is a result of a long-term collaborative project with a group of international researchers dedicated to saving this species,” said Dale McGinnity, ectotherm curator at Nashville Zoo. “This is an important first step and is in line with the Zoo’s commitment to the conservation and propagation of rare species.”

 An adult Ozark Hellbender, one of the world's largest Salamanders...


One of Nashville Zoo's adult Hellbenders...


Learn more about Nashville Zoo's Hellbender breeding efforts in the video below.

The two offspring were produced from a group of four Hellbenders living in an off-exhibit facility at the Zoo. 

“It has taken five years to develop assisted reproductive technologies for captive hellbenders,” said McGinnity. “We hope that with further refinement over the next few years, this species can be reliably reproduced using these techniques. This technology may then be used with a gene bank of cryopreserved sperm for Eastern hellbenders housed at the Nashville Zoo, to produce genetically diverse and fit offspring to suit various conservation needs.”

Hellbender-young---Amiee-StubbsSo small... for now... Photo credit: 1 & 4; Aimee Stubbs / Nashville Zoo, 2; U.S. Fish & Wildlife, 3; Christian Sperka / Nashville Zoo.

Hellbenders, along with their close cousins the Japanese and Chinese giant Salamanders, have remained relatively unchanged since the age of the dinosaurs. All three species are now in decline and may be threatened with extinction unless conservation programs are developed. Over the last 30 years, most Hellbender populations have been in rapid decline across the majority of their range. The St. Louis Zoo, a leader in Hellbender conservation, reproduced Ozark Hellbenders in an artificial stream system for the first time in 2011.

Nashville Zoo’s Amphibian Specialist, Sherri Reinsch, and our Veterinary staff made the project possible. Valuable collaborators on this project include Dr. Robert Brown, an Australian cryobiologist; Dr. Vance Trudeau, a Canadian endocrinologist; Dr. Heather Robertson, Nashville Zoo veterinarian; Joe Greathouse; Dr. Michael Freake; Dr. Brian Miller; Dr. Dalen Agnew; Dr. Carla Carleton; and Dr. Sally Nofs. A special thanks to Bill Reeves and the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency for funding a collaborative SWG grant, that helped fund this work along with statewide surveys, gene banking, disease testing, and genetic work on Tennessee hellbenders.

Guests to the Zoo can see Hellbenders on exhibit in the Unseen New World. More information can be found about the Hellbender project and other conservation programs on the Zoo’s website.