In dripping black wetsuits and scuba masks, standing in the middle of a southern Missouri river last month, a state herpetologist and two zookeepers hugged each other and cheered.
That day, state herpetologist Jeff Briggler with the Missouri Department of Conservation and two Saint Louis Zoo keepers released into the wild the 10,000th hellbender salamander — an animal that has been on the state’s endangered species list since 2003.
Also known by the colloquial names of “snot otter” and “old lasagna sides,” hellbenders are the largest salamander in North America, and historically they were the most abundant animal in the Missouri river streams.
But due to water pollution, habitat destruction, rising water temperatures and disease, they’ve declined more than 70% over the last 40 years.
The hellbender’s future became less bleak in 2011, when the conservation department and the Saint Louis Zoo learned how to breed the salamanders in captivity.
“If you’d asked me 10 years ago, I would say the future was not looking good,” Briggler said of the hellbenders. “But today, knowing that we can successfully breed this animal… we have bought this animal 30 or 40 years.”
Releasing the 10,000th captive-bred hellbender is a huge milestone in his goals of increasing the populations, Briggler said, but there is much work to be done in terms of addressing continued threats.
“We’re hoping to buy these animals time so we can work with different agencies to fix some of these problems in the wild that are leading to their decline,” said Justin Elden, curator of herpetology at the Saint Louis Zoo.
The hellbender’s decline isn’t just a bad omen for this one species, Briggler said. It’s an indicator of environmental stresses, Briggler said.
“So if something’s wrong with this river and our drinking water,” he said, “an animal like a hellbender or amphibian can tell us that answer.”
Saving the hellbender
Hellbenders have broad flat heads and pronounced skin folds on the sides of their body. They can live more than 25 years, and their diet includes crayfish, fish, worms and snails.
They live in rivers cooled by natural springs that contain large amounts of limestone rock for shelter. Because of their nocturnal and secretive behavior, these salamanders are seldom seen.
Historically, there were tens of thousands of hellbenders in Ozark streams, Briggler said.
The Missouri Department of Conservation first realized the hellbenders were in danger of disappearing in the late 1990s. Their initial research showed that the amphibians had about a 95% chance of going extinct in Missouri within the next 70 to 75 years.
“Once we knew that, we really started kicking into gear,” Briggler said in a 2017 interview featured in a children’s song about hellbenders.
In 2001, the Ozark Hellbender Working Group of scientists from government agencies, public universities and zoos in Missouri and Arkansas launched several projects to staunch the decline. These included egg searches, disease sampling and behavioral studies.
At that time, Elden said zoos generally understood how to keep the salamanders “happy and healthy” in their collections.
“But we had no idea on how to breed them,” Elden said. “There was nothing done on breeding them, so we essentially had to start from scratch.”
In 2004, funding from private donors, the Missouri Department of Conservation, the United States Fish & Wildlife Services and the zoo covered the cost of building facilities including climate-controlled streams to breed the hellbender.
Two facilities — the department’s Shepherd of the Hills Hatchery in Branson and the Ron Goellner Center for Hellbender Conservation at the Saint Louis Zoo — were devoted to long-term reproduction efforts of the species.
In 2008, they successfully released young salamanders into river streams that had been raised in captivity, from eggs that conservationists collected from the wild.
Then in the autumn of 2011, the world’s first captive breeding of the Ozark hellbender occurred at the Saint Louis Zoo and resulted in more than 150 larval Ozark hellbenders.
“There’s a lot of different pieces that have to be put into place before we can say that we have, in fact, saved the hellbender,” Elden said. “That said, this was one of the first pieces that we had to put in place to really start that groundwork.”
Since 2008, roughly 9,000 Ozark hellbenders and 1,200 eastern hellbenders — including first- and second-generation Saint Louis Zoo-bred animals — have been reintroduced to the wild in Missouri.
The 10,000th salamander was a nearly 4-year-old Ozark hellbender, who was returned to the same river where the department collected it as an egg in 2018 and then was hatched and raised at the zoo.
“When we began the hellbender conservation program over 20 years ago,” Briggler said, “the idea of returning this many hellbenders into native rivers was a dream goal and almost impossible to imagine at the time.”
The Missouri Independent’s Allison Kite contributed to this story.
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