Location: Missouri
Project Manager: Jeff Ettling
Species: Hellbender
Priority: High

Background

A Missouri resident, the hellbender is the largest species of salamander native to North America. These salamanders are perfectly adapted to their stream habitats with their flattened head and body, short stout legs, long rudder-like tail, and very small, beady eyes. The hellbender populations have been threatened by stream impoundments, pollution and siltation for years, yet seemed to do okay in Missouri and Arkansas. However, over the past 10 years, due to unknown factors, the populations in the Ozark Mountains experienced a sudden decline of 70%.

St. Louis Interest

Located in our own backyard, the exotic hellbender has been an ongoing interest to the Saint Louis Zoo for 30 years. There are two subspecies of hellbender, and Missouri is the only state with both! Unfortunately, this native species is in need of immediate assistance. Who better to help than the Zoo with its history of successful captive breeding of amphibians and involvement in local, as well as international, conservation? The Hellbender Conservation Center's establishment of a successful breeding program for hellbenders will help ensure the future for this unique amphibian. The place to save the hellbender, like any other form of wildlife, is in its native habitat.

Goal

To establish a captive breeding program and a husbandry protocol for successfully rearing hellbender larvae to sexual maturity.

In 2011, the Saint Louis Zoo and the Missouri Department of Conservation announced that Ozark hellbenders had been bred in captivity- a world's first for either of the two subspecies of hellbender. The decade-long collaboration yielded 165 baby hellbenders.

In November 2012, the center announced that eight female Ozark hellbenders had laid a total of 2,809 fertile eggs in the Zoo’s artificial nest boxes in simulated streams. By late November, the center had more than 1,000 larvae. For the first time, all three of the Zoo’s river populations reproduced.

Behind the scenes at the Herpetarium is a fully-functioning, 32-foot-long man-made Missouri stream for breeding hellbenders, complete with a rock bed, the occasional afternoon rain shower and the freshest and purest water in the area. Here the Zoo has formed a breeding group of adult hellbenders and is headstarting the young hellbenders for eventual release.

Conservation Science

The Zoo will construct a climate-controlled habitat capable of sustaining a potential breeding group of hellbenders in the Zoo's Herpetarium. Working with our partners, the Center plans to concentrate not only on captive breeding but will also assist with research projects dealing with stream quality assessments and hellbender health evaluations.

Awards

Edward H. Bean Award

The Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) 2012 Edward H. Bean Award was presented to the Zoo for its “Propagation, Head-start and Conservation Program for the Ozark Hellbender.” One of AZA's most historic awards, the Edward H. Bean Award recognizes a truly significant captive propagation effort that clearly enhances the conservation of the species.

Outstanding Collaborator of the Year Award

The Saint Louis Zoo's Ron Goellner Center for Hellbender Conservation received the Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC) Outstanding Collaborator of the Year Award in May, 2010. The award recognizes the Zoo's Herpetarium staff, veterinary and life support departments for being key players in conservation efforts for hellbenders in Missouri and nationally, particularly in regards to captive propagation efforts.

The Zoo was commended for being devoted not only to hellbender conservation, but also to working with MDC and other partners. "The Zoo has always been a strong supporter of amphibian and reptile conservation in Missouri, and have graciously assisted MDC with many surveys, questions and issues that have arisen over the years," states Dr. Jeff Briggler, herpetologist with the MDC Resource Division. "This dedication to amphibian and reptile conservation in Missouri has been the result of over 40 years of collaboration between the Zoo and MDC herpetologists."

A special award was also presented to Karen Goellner, wife of the late Ron Goellner, for continuing to raise funds and create awareness for hellbender conservation.

Partners