A breakthrough in a decade-old program could mean there will soon be more Ozark hellbenders in the world.
The Ozark Hellbender Working Group launched projects to save the endangered hellbender in 2001. Last year, hellbenders were bred in captivity for the first time. St. Louis Zoo spokesperson Susan Gallagher says this year has seen another first.
“For the first time, all three river populations … we have three rivers that totally simulate existing Missouri Ozark rivers. All three produced fertile eggs and now we have larvae from all those.”
Missouri Department of Conservation herpetologist Jeff Briggler says the results this year have been overwhelming.
“We’re probably going to wind up with 2,700 to 2,800 animals. To put that in perspective … we really don’t even believe there’s 600 or 700 Ozark hellbenders left in this state, so this is going to be a huge, significant improvement of the population levels in the near future when we release these animals.”
Briggler says the hellbenders bred in captivity will be raised in the Zoo for the next five to six years, to a size that will make them safer from predators. Then, they will be released. Officials are hopeful they will rebuild the population, and perhaps help identify what is killing them in the wild.
He says there are a couple of suspected causes. “We do know they carry a disease called chytrid fungus. Then also, habitat changes. Our rivers are getting choked more with gravel and sands that disturb the habitat. Then the health of the rivers … the water quality, contaminants and things in the rivers. It’s probably a combination of these things that are actually driving this animal towards extinction.”
Briggler healthy hellbenders that have been raised in captivity will provide a good look at how their health changes when they are released. “Before they go in the river we’ll do blood draws on them and we can look at their health levels before they ever go to the river. In the future when we catch them back, we can draw blood again and see what they’re accumulating from the river. So, if they’re accumulating some type of heavy metal we can learn that answer off of these animals we put back. If the disease is killing them, we can learn that by these animals.
Hellbenders are very sensitive to small changes in the quality of the water in which they live, and Briggler says that makes them even more significant to an ecosystem and more important to save them.
The Working Group also includes scientists and officials with the United States Fish & Wildlife Service and funding from private donors.
Also known as the “snot otter” and “old lasagna sides,” adult hellbenders are among the largest species of salamanders in North America and can reach up to two feet in length. As for where they get the name “hellbender,” Briggler says, “From everything we can see, early people that came into the U.S., when they caught their first hellbender, a lot of times their bodies were kind of bent in the river … most people would say they look so ugly that they look so ugly that they belong in The Inferno regions.”