Zoo news letterhead

Nov. 1, 2012

Saint Louis Zoo 314/781-0900
Susan Gallagher, ext. 4633
Joanna Bender, ext. 4703

Saint Louis Zoo, Missouri Department of Conservation, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service Announce the Captive Breeding of Three Populations of Endangered Ozark Hellbenders

First Time All Three River Populations of Hellbenders Have Reproduced

The Saint Louis Zoo’s Ron Goellner Center for Hellbender Conservation today announced that eight female Ozark hellbenders have laid a total of 2,809 fertile eggs in the Zoo’s artificial nest boxes in simulated streams.

There are now in 214 larvae, with more expected to hatch in coming days.

This marks only the second time that endangered Ozark hellbenders have been bred in captivity. The Zoo and its partners, the Missouri Department of Conservation and United States Fish & Wildlife Service, announced the world’s first successful captive breeding of the species in November 2011.

“The significance of today’s announcement is that for the first time, all three of the Zoo’s river populations reproduced, including hellbenders bred from a population in a habitat that has been maintained indoors for the past eight years---the Zoo’s simulated White River North Fork stream,” said Jeff Ettling, Curator of Herpetology & Aquatics and Director of the Ron Goellner Center for Hellbender Conservation.

He said that that Zoo staff found Ozark hellbender eggs in nest boxes in streams designed to simulate the habitats of Missouri’s Current River (three clutches of eggs); the North Fork of the White River (three clutches) and the Eleven Point River (two clutches).

Rivers in south-central Missouri and adjacent Arkansas once supported up to 8,000 Ozark hellbenders. Today, fewer than 600 exist in the world—so few that the amphibian was added in October 2011 to the federal endangered species list.

Due to these drastic declines, captive propagation became a priority in the long-term recovery of the species. Once the captive-bred larvae are 3 to 8 years old, they can then be released into their natural habitat—the Ozark aquatic ecosystem.

Also known by the colloquial names of "snot otter" and "old lasagna sides," the adult hellbender is one of the largest species of salamanders in North America, with its closest relatives being the giant salamanders of China and Japan, which can reach five feet in length.

With skin that is brown with black splotches, the Ozark hellbender has a slippery, flattened body that moves easily through water and can squeeze under rocks on the bottom of streams.

DETAILS OF THE PROJECT: In 2001, the Ozark Hellbender Working Group of scientists from government agencies, public universities and zoos in Missouri and Arkansas launched a number of projects to staunch the Ozark hellbender’s decline. These included egg searches, disease sampling and behavioral studies. In 2004, funding from private donors, the Missouri Department of Conservation, the United States Fish & Wildlife Service and the Zoo, covered the cost of building sophisticated facilities, including climate-controlled streams to breed the hellbender.

The hellbender propagation facilities include two outdoor streams that are 40 feet long and six feet deep. One stream houses a breeding group of Ozark hellbenders from the Current River and the other houses a breeding group from the Eleven Point River. The area is landscaped with natural gravel and large rocks for hiding and artificial nest boxes, where the fertilized eggs were discovered. A nearby building houses state-of-the-art life support equipment used to filter the water and maintain the streams at the proper temperature.

In addition, two large climate-controlled rooms in the basement of the Zoo's Charles H. Hoessle Herpetarium are the headquarters for the program. The facilities recreate hellbender habitat with closely monitored temperatures, pumps to move purified water, sprinklers synced to mimic the exact precipitation and lights that flick on, or dim, to account for brightness and shade.

The largest room includes a 32-foot simulated stream and houses the breeding group of adult Ozark hellbenders from the North Fork of the White River in Missouri.

ABOUT THE PARTNERS:The Ron Goellner Center for Hellbender Conservation is part of the Saint Louis Zoo’s WildCare Institute. Ranked as America's #1 Zoo by Zagat Survey and Parenting Magazine, the Saint Louis Zoo is widely recognized for its innovative approaches to animal management, wildlife conservation, research and education. One of the few free zoos in the nation, it attracts about 3,000,000 visitors a year.

The Saint Louis Zoo launched its WildCare Institute in 2004 to further numerous wildlife conservation projects around the world. The Zoo partners with other zoos, universities, field biologists and government agencies to develop a holistic approach for wildlife management and recovery, conservation science and support of the human populations that coexist with wildlife.

The Missouri Department of Conservation protects and manages the fish, forest and wildlife resources of the state of Missouri. The state agency facilitates citizens' participation in resource management activities and provides opportunities for use, enjoyment and education about nature.

The Mission of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service is to work with others to conserve, protect and enhance fish, wildlife, and plants and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people.