Endangered Ozark hellbenders reproduce in captivity at Saint Louis Zoo

Wednesday, November 30, 2011 | 4:05 p.m. CST; updated 10:48 p.m. CST, Wednesday, November 30, 2011
Baby hellbenders in eggs. Saint Louis Zoo will raise the hellbenders until they react maturity in six to eight years before releasing them in to the wild.

ST. LOUIS — The Saint Louis Zoo has marked a breakthrough with the first successful reproduction of captive Ozark hellbenders after 10 years of trying.

Sixty-three Ozark hellbenders have hatched at the zoo, and about 120 more are expected.

The propagation efforts address the drastic declines in the population of Ozark hellbenders, a species of giant salamander found in southern Missouri and northern Arkansas rivers that was added in October to the federal list of endangered species.

Jeff Ettling, the zoo’s curator of herpetology and aquatics, said that lifting the lid off an egg box in one of the newly constructed 40-foot outdoor streams and finding the fertilized clutches was a "high-five moment."

“It's still very surreal to all of us,” Ettling said.

The zoo plans to raise the young hellbenders to maturity, which takes six to eight years, before releasing them into the wild.

By 2007, researchers estimated 590 Ozark hellbenders remained in the wild compared to an estimated 8,000 hellbenders in the 1970s.

In declaring the species endangered, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service cited river recreation, sedimentation, logging, gravel mining, brown trout stocking, cattle, dams and amphibian disease as threats.

"There are a number of land use issues that are going to have to be corrected in order for hellbenders to sustain themselves long-term," Ettling said.

While organizations and groups address those threats, Ettling said he's confident that if the zoo continues to mimic environmental conditions such as water temperature, more hellbenders will reproduce.

Ettling said scientists suspect the fertilized clutches came from two females brought to the zoo in September from the Eleven Point River. The male has lived in the zoo's herpetarium building for two years.

The zoo has hellbenders from the North Fork, Current and Eleven Point rivers, and Ettling hopes specimens from each of those rivers will eventually reproduce.

If all of this year's hatchlings survive, the zoo will be caring for about 180 baby hellbenders. Ettling expects most of them will live because the zoo has had previous success raising baby hellbenders that were brought to them from the wild.

Ettling said that the zoo plans to build more hellbender habitats to house its new charges. "We're going to have a lot of baby hellbenders here. It'll be a good problem to have."

The zoo’s Ron Goellner Center for Hellbender Conservation has been trying since 2002 to get captive hellbenders taken from streams in the Ozarks to propagate. Partners in the effort include the Missouri Department of Conservation, Fish and Wildlife and the University of Missouri.

The Department of Conservation has provided $35,000 to support hellbender operations and disease testing at the zoo. 

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