Center hopes to breed endangered salamanders

Friday, December 5, 2008 | 12:00 p.m. CST; updated 11:15 p.m. CST, Friday, December 5, 2008
Rich Collister, curator of life sciences at the Wonders of Wildlife Museum in Springfield, said hellbenders have high sensitivity to changes in their habitat. Their declining numbers serves as an environmental indicator, telling us what is happening in the environment.

Helping hellbenders

The Missouri Department of Conservation offers these tips to help the hellbender:

  1. Report illegal collecting of hellbenders. It is illegal to own any part of hellbenders (eggs, a foot, a tail), and the Conservation Department encourages the reporting of illegal collecting of the species.
  2. Landowners with cattle that have access to Ozark streams can improve water quality by fencing riparian zones to keep cattle out.
  3. Visitors can help keep Ozark waterways clean by leaving no waste.
  4. Report in-stream gravel mining from Ozark streams.
  5. Keep pollutants out of watersheds that drain into Ozark streams.

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COLUMBIA — Some call it a “mud devil,” and others call it a “water dog.” Despite its ominous name, the hellbender, as it's more commonly known, is not a threat to humans.

But humans have become a suspected threat to the hellbender, which is considered by some to be the most grotesque-looking salamander in North America. Their numbers have been dwindling since the 1990s, and the hellbender was added to the state endangered species list in 2003.

In response, the Missouri Department of Conservation is working directly with the Ron Goellner Center for Hellbender Conservation at the Saint Louis Zoo WildCare Institute to develop a program that would breed hellbenders in captivity and release them into the wild.

The hellbender measures 2 feet long. The eastern and Ozark subspecies of the hellbender (Cryptobranchus alleganiensis) are among one of the largest species of salamander in the world, and Missouri is the only state that is home to both.

Hellbenders are fully aquatic creatures, meaning they can’t live out of water and are unable to crawl onto land. They have flat heads, stout legs, a rudder-like tail and small beady eyes.

According to a Missouri state herpetologist, Jeff Briggler, early settlers thought the hellbender looked like a creature from hell where it was “bent” on returning, which is how the hellbender got its name.

Some anglers, believing hellbenders eat too many fish and are dangerous to humans, kill the salamanders. These misconceptions are false, however, since the hellbender consumes mostly crawfish. While some killings of hellbenders are because of a lack of understanding, this is not the No. 1 problem that plagues the species and why it faces extinction.

One threat to their survival is changes in watersheds that lead to reduced water quality and carry silt and gravel into stream beds.

Briggler said while disease could be a factor, humans could be indirectly hurting the hellbender because of land-use practices. He gave examples of contaminant runoff and siltation.

Rich Collister, curator of life sciences at the Wonders of Wildlife Museum in Springfield, said there are no concrete numbers of how many hellbenders are left in Missouri. What is known, he said, is there isn’t a thriving young population in the wild, meaning the species could eventually die out.

The Missouri Department of Conservation said the cause of the lack of the young is either due to lack of reproduction success or an increase in offspring mortality.

Jeff Ettling, director of the center at the Saint Louis Zoo, said the amphibian chytrid fungus is a cause of the salamander’s disappearance. The amphibian chytrid fungus is a contagious disease that occurs in amphibians.

“It’s the equivalence of AIDS in humans,” Ettling said. “It’s not the fungus that kills them; it’s the secondary infections that develop because the fungus is present.”

Ettling saidamphibians breathe through their skin, and when the disease thickens skin cell layers, it is more difficult for the species to breathe.

Ettling said the center has successfully developed what they call a “heat treatment protocol” that is used to cure the hellbender of the fungus.

He said the center is getting closer to breeding the hellbender successfully in captivity.

"We are confident that successful reproduction will occur in the coming years,” Ettling said.

“We want to make sure that we’re able to captive-produce the species and then see if it is a viable option in order to populate the wild in greater numbers,” he said.

"Head starters," hellbenders produced from eggs collected from the wild in 2003, were surgically implanted with radio transmitters. Ongoing research is tracking the released hellbenders.

Josh Millspaugh, MU associate professor of fisheries and wildlife, is conducting the research and keeping track of the head starters.

“In this study it is necessary to monitor movements,” Millspaugh said, “so we can determine how they are using their environment and also what habitats they select. By knowing habitat use we can learn whether adequate habitat exists.”

He said the head starters are also monitored to make sure they can live in the wild.

Millspaugh said the research has been successful but is in its early stages, making it too soon to come to any conclusions. He said if radio tracking results are successful, “it means hand-rearing might be a viable management alternative.”

“With such significant declines in hellbender numbers, we need to know if release is a possible option for reversing this decline,” Millspaugh said.

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