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Second generation of captive-bred Ozark hellbenders
hatch at Saint Louis Zoo

Historic achievement in conservation for this endangered species

The Saint Louis Zoo, the Missouri Department of Conservation and U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service announce a historic achievement in hellbender conservation with the hatching of second-generation zoo-bred endangered Ozark hellbenders at the Saint Louis Zoo. Since October 6, 2018, 39 hellbenders hatched at the Zoo's Charles H. Hoessle Herpetarium.

The Zoo's 7-year-old, first-time father of these baby hellbenders is somewhat of a celebrity salamander. This male and his clutchmates were the result of the world's first successful captive breeding of Ozark hellbenders in November 2011 at the Zoo. This is the first time any of the Saint Louis Zoo-bred, first-generation animals have successfully bred.

"This is truly a milestone and a credit to the expertise of our dedicated and caring Herpetarium team," said Lauren Augustine, Curator of Herpetology at the Zoo and Director of the Saint Louis Zoo WildCare Institute Ron Goellner Center for Hellbender Conservation. "To know that the animals, which were bred, hatched and raised in our care, are now able to successfully reproduce is amazing. It means that we're on the right track and that there's hope for this species as a whole."

"The Saint Louis Zoo has been a great partner in amphibian conservation for over 40 years," said Jeff Briggler, Ph.D., State Herpetologist with the Missouri Department of Conservation. "We are hopeful that the first generation of Saint Louis Zoo-bred hellbenders now living in Missouri rivers are equally as successful in reproducing."

In fall, a male hellbender sets up a nest site under a large stone and waits for a female to enter and deposit her eggs to be fertilized. The male defends its nest until the eggs hatch into larvae. Around mid-September in the Zoo's outdoor simulated streams, two female Ozark hellbenders that came to the Zoo in 2011 as newly hatched larvae from Missouri Department of Conservation Shepherd of the Hills Fish Hatchery, laid a total of 301 eggs in a nest box that was guarded by a male that was bred and hatched at the Zoo in 2011. Of those eggs, 43 were fertile and were moved to climate- and water quality-controlled trays behind the scenes at the Herpetarium where they are being cared for by staff.

Breeding of this species has occurred at the Zoo annually from 2011 to 2016, resulting in 6,586 Ozark hellbenders eggs, which produced 5,183 successful hatchlings.

Hellbenders are the largest aquatic salamanders in North America. Missouri is the only state that has both subspecies — the Ozark hellbender and the eastern hellbender. Both are listed as state endangered in Missouri, and the Ozark hellbender also is federally endangered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. "Rivers in south-central Missouri and adjacent Arkansas were estimated to once support over 27,000 Ozark hellbenders," said Dr. Briggler.

Due to drastic declines of wild populations, 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.

In addition to the captive breeding efforts, the Saint Louis Zoo also has been head-starting juvenile Ozark and eastern hellbenders, hatched from eggs collected in the wild, for future release. The success of a test release in 2008 suggested that captive-raised hellbenders can survive in the wild. Since 2008, a total of 5,792 juvenile Ozark hellbenders and 319 eastern hellbenders reared at the Zoo have been released into the wild to augment remaining populations in six different rivers. Missouri Department of Conservation staff are monitoring the success of these release animals in the wild.

Currently, the Saint Louis Zoo is head-starting over 2,112 juvenile hellbenders for future release.

About Ozark Hellbenders
The Ozark hellbender (Cryptobranchus alleganiensis bishopi) is a large aquatic salamander that can reach lengths up to 20 inches. 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. It has a restricted range and is only found in the cold-water rivers of south-central Missouri and adjacent north-central Arkansas. Hellbenders have broad flat heads, small lidless eyes and pronounced skin folds on the sides of their body. They can live 25+ years, and their diet includes crayfish, fish, worms and snails. Large rocks on the river bottom provide refuge and nesting sites.

Details of the Project
In 2001, the Ozark Hellbender Working Group of representatives from state and federal 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 to name a few. 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. Collection of the captive-bred stock and eggs for propagation efforts at the Zoo occurred by Missouri Department of Conservation staff.

The hellbender propagation facilities at the Saint Louis Zoo include two outdoor streams that are 40 feet long and 6 feet deep. The streams house breeding groups of Ozark hellbenders from rivers in Missouri. 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, three large and one small quarantined, climate-controlled rooms behind the scenes of the Zoo's 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 another breeding group of adult Ozark hellbenders.

About the Partners
The Ron Goellner Center for Hellbender Conservation is part of the Saint Louis Zoo WildCare Institute. Through its WildCare Institute, the Zoo focuses on wildlife management and recovery, conservation science, and support of the human populations that coexist with wildlife in 13 conservation hotspots around the world, including four in Missouri. Chosen as America's top free attraction and best zoo in USA Today 10Best Readers' Choice Awards, the Saint Louis Zoo is widely recognized for its innovative approaches to animal care and management, wildlife conservation, research, and education. One of the few free zoos in the nation, the Zoo attracts more than 3,000,000 visitors a year.

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.