ST. LOUIS – Missouri recently reached an important milestone in the recovery of an endangered species.

On Thursday, the Missouri Department of Conservation confirmed that a zoo-raised Ozark hellbender has reproduced in the Current River.

Hellbenders are the largest aquatic salamander in North America. Missouri is the only state to have both subspecies of hellbenders – the Ozark and eastern. Its closest relative, the giant salamander, lives in China and Japan.

Both the Ozark and eastern hellbender populations in Missouri have declined more than 70% over the past 40 years, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and were added to the federal endangered species list in October 2011. At present, fewer than 1,000 hellbenders exist in the wild.

A species assessment showed all hellbender populations had a 96% risk of extinction over the next 75 years unless the population increases. Common threats are amplified because they are slow-to-mature amphibians and seldom venture far within their river habitat.

To slow the endangerment of the amphibians, the MDC partnered with the Saint Louis Zoo and other agencies in the early 2000s to raise hellbenders in captivity and eventually release them into the wild.

On Thursday, the MDC announced the first zoo-reared Ozark hellbender successfully fathered a clutch of eggs in the Current River. (Courtesy: Missouri Department of Conservation)

Hellbenders are released back into their natural habitat when they’re between 3 and 8 years old. Since 2008, more than 10,000 Saint Louis Zoo-raised endangered hellbenders have been reintroduced to the wild in Missouri.

In October 2022, MDC biologists discovered a zoo-reared hellbender had laid a clutch of 128 eggs. Later inspection showed the eggs were beginning to hatch, with an adult male hellbender protecting them.

The MDC confirmed the hellbender that laid the eggs was released into the Current River in July 2019.