The Saint Louis Zoo successfully bred hellbenders in captivity for the first time in November 2011. After the hatchlings reach maturity, they will be released into Ozark waterways.
Devil dog. Snot otter. Mud cat. Old lasagna sides. The Ozark hellbender has been called a lot of unflattering names, and its strange, creature-from-the-deep appearance doesn't help to dispel any misconceptions. But this shy salamander is no threat to humans - in fact, the reverse is true: human activities are threatening the survival of this federally endangered species.
Hellbenders are prehistoric, with fossil records dating back over 150 million years. One of the largest salamanders in the world, the Ozark hellbender can grow to over two feet in length during its 30-year lifespan. This subspecies is found only in the Ozarks, where it lives under large rocks in fast-flowing, oxygen-rich streams.
The hellbender is strictly aquatic and breathes entirely through its skin, which is porous and wrinkled to help efficiently draw oxygen from the water. Unfortunately, the qualities of its skin also makes the amphibian especially susceptible to reduced water quality.
To make matters worse, the highly infectious chytrid fungus is having a devastating effect on amphibian populations throughout the world, and hellbenders have not escaped this fatal disease.
It's estimated that fewer than 590 Ozark hellbenders remain in the wild.
Because the Ozark hellbender is found only in Ozark rivers and streams, its survival depends on preserving the health of these waterways. One of the primary threats to the hellbender's habitat is unsustainable forestry. Depleted oxygen levels, increased sedimentation, and warmer waters caused by improper timber harvesting make it difficult for hellbenders to thrive.
The Conservancy is improving the hellbender's habitat by working with private landowners to promote sustainable forestry, primarily through the use of conservation easements. The health of Ozark waterways, such as the Current River, is a top conservation priority for the Conservancy.
The Ozark hellbender has been a part of Missouri's natural history for millennia. The hellbender can remain one of Missouri's most ancient and unusual species if we work together to improve its habitat. You can help the Conservancy achieve tangible, lasting results by contributing to our science-based initiatives.
January 25, 2013