Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Honeymooning Hellbenders at the St. Louis Zoo

Last October, when the US Fish and Wildlife Service added the Ozark hellbender to the nation’s list of endangered species, my first question was:

As a resident of the Ozarks, it was a little embarrassing not to know. 

But this creature (one of the world’s largest salamanders) is not the sort of species that attracts a lot of attention. The hellbender is slimy, hulking, drab, and downright strange-looking. Plus, it spends daylight hours hiding under rocks in the depths of swiftly flowing streams. I’ve spent years working and playing in Ozark waters, and I’d never heard of it, much less laid eyes on one.

Photo by Jill Utrup/USFWS
Unfortunately, the harmless Ozark hellbender is now as imperiled as it is elusive, and people are finally paying attention.

Fewer than 600 hellbenders are estimated to exist in a handful of river systems throughout southern Missouri and northern Arkansas. Projects are already underway to protect and restore hellbender habitat in the wild, and scientists are working in earnest to identify and combat other possible causes of population decline.

At the same time, the Saint Louis Zoo has been bent on boosting numbers by hosting an elaborate hellbender honeymoon. The Ron Goellner Center for Hellbender Conservation has created a 32-foot-long replica of a natural Ozark stream.  Inside this “honeymoon suite,” the zoo has successfully established a breeding group of adult hellbenders. So far, 165 baby hellbender have hatched—the first hellbenders to ever be born in captivity—and with them, a new hope for this species’ survival has hatched as well.

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