by Ron Goellner, Director of Animal Collections
stlzoo magazine, November/December 2004

A famous science fiction story A Sound of Thunder, by Ray Bradbury, tells the story of a time-travel company in the year 2055 that arranges to fly wealthy hunters into the distant past to hunt dinosaurs. Every step of the trip is carefully planned so that the activities will not alter the events of the past. To help insure this, an advanced team identifies and mark dinosaurs that are about to die and hunters are sent to the scene, just second before, to make the kill. Unfortunately, one eager hunter steps off the designated trail and accidentally steps on a resting butterfly. When the time-travelers return to the future, things are different! Their once peaceful world is now in chaos...the devastating result of millions of years of effects brought about by the premature death of the butterfly.

Given the current conditions found worldwide that persistently contribute to events that result in environmental degradation and the depletion of wildlife, it seems certain that someone from the future must have traveled to the past and stepped on a butterfly. A major problem is the fact that the world economy is based on growth, a situation that demands more development, more expansion, more consumption, and more people. These circumstances contribute to the constant conflict between mankind and the world's wildlife and the continue loss of biodiversity. Over the past 40 years we have watched many flagship species (gorillas, rhinos, elephants and whales to name just a few) decline dramatically while the human population has doubled from three billion to over six billion.

The decline of the larger species is obvious and easy to document. Frequently overlooked, however, is the decline of thousands of smaller, seemingly insignificant species. One such species right in our own backyard is the hellbender.

This aquatic salamander is native to the fast moving, spring-fed Ozark Mountain streams. Over the past 10 years its population has declined by nearly 80 percent. The Saint Louis Zoo WildCare Institute Hellbender Conservation Center has partnered with the Missouri Department of Conservation, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, a number of universities and other non-governmental governmental organizations to discover the cause (or causes) for this decline and to provide support to help change the current course. Funded through the Zoo's Field Research for Conservation (FRC) program are projects with the University of Missouri, Rolla (investigating the current hematological conditions of wild hellbenders) and the University of Florida (analyzing current conditions of what was once prime hellbender habitat). There is also a potential breeding group of hellbenders in a climate-controlled artificial stream in the Charles H. Hoessle Herpetarium at the Zoo. This last-ditch effort may be of utmost importance if future reintroductions from captive-breedings are necessary to supplement the wild population...a tall order for a species that has never been bred under captive conditions.

Discouragement gives way to cautious optimism about the future of the hellbenders as we join forces with the many dedicated, enthusiastic individuals working towards a common goal. Hopefully, conservation biologists here and in the field will be successful and the efforts of our Conservation Centers throughout the world will help overcome the negative effects that may result from the death of one small creature.