In November, 185 baby Ozark hellbender salamanders (Cryptobranchus alleganiensis bishopi) were hatched at the Saint Louis Zoo, the first time these endangered amphibians have successfully bred in captivity. This news comes just two months after the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) granted the species protection under the Endangered Species Act. Ozark hellbenders are found only in the rivers and streams of northern Arkansas and southern Missouri. USFWS estimates that there are fewer than 600 left in the wild.
The captive breeding and release program at the Saint Louis Zoo owes its success in part to elaborate artificial habitats constructed to mimic the young salamanders' natural environment. The herpetarium has outdoor streams equipped with artificial nesting boxes and plenty of natural gravel and large rocks, favorite hellbender hang-out spots. The facilities also include climate-controlled rooms that recreate natural precipitation and lighting.
The young hellbenders will be raised in this idyllic environment, far from the jaws of potential predators. When they are 6-8-years-old, and better able to fend for themselves, they will be released into their natural habitat.
Colloquially known as "snot otters," hellbenders are the largest salamanders in North America, growing up to 60 cm in length. They have slippery, flattened bodies that enable them to move easily through water and hide under rocks.
Unfortunately, hellbenders face several different threats to their survival, including pollution, the illegal pet trade, and loss of habitat. Additionally, the deadly chytrid fungus, which is behind the worldwide decline in amphibian populations, has been observed in hellbenders.
Due to their limited home range, hellbender numbers were never very high. The rivers and streams of the Ozarks probably once supported up to 8,000 of these unusual amphibians. The program at the Saint Louis Zoo is working to give baby hellbenders a head start, protecting them during their most vulnerable years and then releasing them into the wild population. With numbers like this first batch of captive births, hellbenders may have a second chance.
- Saint Louis Zoo: Hellbender captive breeding program