by Jeff Ettling, curator of herpetology & aquatics
stlzoo magazine, May/June 2006

A visit to the Saint Louis Zoo provides many opportunities to see rare, interesting, beautiful animals. In the case of the hellbender - a distinctive-looking giant salamander native to Missouri - some people might say, "Well, two out of three."

Hellbenders are definitely rare and interesting. The large creatures once thrived in Ozark streams, but for a variety of reasons the hellbender is now endangered. The Saint Louis Zoo has been leading conservation efforts for hellbenders in Missouri, and over the past two years there has been considerable activity in this challenge.

The Zoo's goal is to help conserve the unique large salamander and its diminishing habitat through an integrated program of public education, captive propagation and in situ (in the field) research. We are pleased to report that significant progress has been made on the continued development of our off-exhibit hellbender propagation facility, as well as on our collaborative field research programs with the Missouri Department of Conservation and several state universities.

Perhaps most notably, a large (25' x 50') insulated room was constructed in the basement of the Charles H. Hoessle Herpetarium in the summer of 2004. This specially designed room enables us to attempt the propagation of hellbenders in captivity - a feat which has never been done in any zoological institution. The new facility also serves as a holding area for the young hellbenders we are head-starting for release.

The room features a 32' long simulated stream that houses seven adult Ozark hellbenders which comprise the nucleus of our "potential" breeding group. Over the past six months, with assistance from our Life Support Systems staff, we have started to set up larger aquarium systems to hold our growing group of 136 young hellbenders. With these new arrangements, we will be able to segregate the hellbenders into smaller groups while providing them with much needed additional space.

Beyond our own propagation efforts, the Saint Louis Zoo will be an active participant in several research projects in the coming year. These important studies range from an evaluation of health conditions of free-ranging hellbenders to the effects of native and non-native fish on larval hellbenders. Although all of these projects will provide essential and necessary information about managing wild hellbender populations, the study which should prove to be particularly beneficial is one involving the release and monitoring of our head-started juvenile hellbenders.

By tracking 60 released hellbenders implanted with radio-transmitters, this project will evaluate their survival rates and movements. The data gathered from these activities will then help assess the feasibility of augmenting Ozark and eastern hellbender populations through head-started individuals raised in captivity.

Herpetarium staffers have also structured their keeper chats to include information on hellbender conservation. The goals of these chats are to increase public awareness of the plight of the hellbender and to foster an appreciation for this unique amphibian - as well as for the conservation efforts required to maintain the hellbender and its associated ecosystems. As part of this campaign, keepers will hand out hellbender informational brochures and stickers to interested visitors, and progress reports will be featured in future issues of stlzoo.

The Saint Louis Zoo has even joined with the Missouri Department of Conservation, the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Missouri Conservation Heritage Foundation to form the Hellbender Conservation Team. Together we are working to save these long-lived, unusual salamanders and the Ozark streams they inhabit. And that's really beautiful, no matter how you look at it.