Hellbender Zoo Babies Debut

The St. Louis Zoo has successfully bred Ozark hellbenders for the first time in captivity.

Hellbenders, or snot-otters, have a face only a mother could love. That assertion was put to the test when, for the first time in captivity, Ozark hellbenders became mothers at the St. Louis Zoo in November.

Sixty-three hellbender larvae hatched out, starting on Nov. 15. It will take up to two years for them to morph into salamander form, and another five to eight years to reach sexual maturity.

Besides being an awesome name for a bluegrass band, the Ozark hellbender (Cryptobranchus alleganiensis bishopi) is one of the largest species of salamander in North America. The two-foot-long amphibian looks like a cross between a Shar Pei and the creature from the black lagoon.

The success in St. Louis was the result of a decade long collaboration between the zoo's Ron Goellner Center for Hellbender Conservation and the Missouri Department of Conservation.

The young hellbenders may someday help to replenish wild populations.

"We have a 15- to 20-year window to reverse this decline," said Missouri Department of Conservation Herpetologist Jeff Briggler in a press release. "We don't want the animal disappearing on our watch."

The rivers of south-central Missouri and adjacent Arkansas once supported up to 8000 of the strange creatures, but pollution, disease, habitat loss, and the pet trade reduced their numbers to less that 600. In October the slippery brown amphibians were added to the federal endangered species list.

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Hellbenders are sensitive to environmental changes and can be among the first to disappear when a stream's quality is compromised.

"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, in a press release.

Loss of hellbenders may be a warning to people in the area.

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"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," said Ettling.

Although their home in the wild may be degraded, the hellbenders have it sweet at at the St. Louis Zoo.

The hellbender propagation facilities boast two 40 foot long (12.2 meter), six foot deep (1.8 meter) outdoor streams. Indoors, two climate controlled rooms with a 32-foot simulated steam, purified water, rain-simulating sprinkler systems and special lights which mimic changing sunlight conditions help keep the hellbenders from missing their original home in Missouri's White River.


Hellbender Cryptobranchus alleganiensis (Brian Gratwicke, Wikimedia Commons)

Hellbender larvae (Mark Wanner, St. Louis Zoo)