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Hellbender preservation efforts are making a splash in Missouri

Adult Ozark hellbenders can reach up to two feet in length, making them one of the largest salamanders in the world.
Ray Meibaum | Saint Louis Zoo

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 6, 2013: Flat-headed, wriggly, covered in slime and looking like a cross between a lizard, a fish and an eel, the hellbender probably won’t win a contest for Missouri’s cutest critter. Its very name is likely a speculation by early settlers on the creature’s place of origin.

“Some people say they look like they are bent on returning to where they belong because they are so ugly,” said Jeff Briggler, a herpetologist from the Missouri Department of Conservation.

While the hellbender’s ultimate fate may not lead to the infernal regions, this aquatic branch of the salamander family is in real trouble and folks like Briggler are at the center of the initiative to lend them a hand. As much as four-fifths of the population has vanished from the state’s rivers over the past few decades and the reasons aren’t altogether clear.

What is obvious is what will happen if something isn’t done.

“What we’re seeing now is fewer bigger, older individuals and we’re seeing very few young at all,” said Briggler. “That’s led to the alarming assumption that this animal is going to go extirpated (locally extinct) in the near future if we don’t do something about it.”

Carnivorous, with short, stubby legs, beady eyes and a rudder-like tail, hellbenders, known more colloquially - and perhaps less kindly - as “snot otters” look a bit like an evolutionary missing link, content to walk along the river bottom in search of their crayfish prey but able to swim like a fish to escape danger. The threatened amphibians, which grow to be about two feet long, are very big by salamander standards and come in a couple of flavors:  Eastern Hellbenders, whose range extends through Appalachian streams from New York to Georgia extending westward through the Ohio River Valley, and the more localized Ozark version that’s native to southern Missouri and northern Arkansas. The Show-Me State is the only place where both exist.

At least it is for now. Hellbender numbers for both species are dropping and they’ve hit endangered status in a number of states though not at the federal level.

The declining populations have spurred a decade-long joint effort between the MDC and the St. Louis Zoo to preserve the hellbender. In 2011, the Ozark variety was bred in captivity at the zoo, the first time in history the feat had been managed. With an initial yield of 165 young hellbenders, the initiative is continuing to pay dividends with some 2,500 offspring this time around.

With only a few hundred left in the wild, that figure makes the three artificial streams at the zoo’s Ron Goellner Center for Hellbender Conservation home to far more Ozark hellbenders than the Ozarks themselves.

“I would say that it is probably one of our top conservation efforts in my 26 years with the zoo,” said Jeff Ettling, the center’s director. “I think it’s one of the most substantial things I’ve been a part of. It’s something right here in our back yard that’s in dire need of help.”

Exactly why it’s in need of help remains something of a mystery. Briggler said initial indicators pointed to sterility as a problem, possibly as a result of river contamination. But more recent studies have found that hellbender sperm counts are adequate and fertilized nests are being found in the wild. Moreover, there is little evidence of toxic metals in the animals.

Research is now focusing on what happens when baby hellbenders leave the nest.

One possible culprit for the decline is increased sedimentation in rivers from fine silts and other material that has made its way into waterways due to human development. Sediment fills in the spaces between rocks and gravel that are the hellbenders' natural breeding and feeding grounds. Squeezing youngsters out may be leading to increased exposure to predators for the tiny salamanders.

Other suspects include issues related to water quality and the possibility of an amphibian fungus.

“You have all these factors coming at them and each factor may not be the nail in the coffin,” said Briggler, “but the combination of them is increasing the stress of the animals, weakening their immune systems, which in turn makes them more vulnerable to death from other causes.”

Whatever the problem is, it may not stay forever confined to hellbenders. Conservationists think of amphibians as a “canary in the coal mine” when it comes to water purity. With permeable skin, they easily acquire contaminants from the environment and can be a sign of a larger problem.

“We also know they are a good indicator of what the quality of the environment is, at least for us,” said Ettling. “Whatever’s impacting them is probably going to be impacting humans at some point as well.”

Briggler said hellbenders could affect people in another way. The sheath of slime that helps protect the animal from invasive diseases is home to a number of different naturally occurring bacteria and fungi that may one day be of interest to medical researchers and pharmaceutical companies as a basis for treatments of ailments in humans.

“There are properties to these animals that may be beneficial to us that we don’t even know yet,” Briggler said.

Regardless, Ettling said that preserving biodiversity is its own reward. Hellbenders are a part of the state’s unique ecosystem.

“A lot of people have asked, ‘Well, now that you’ve produced them, when do you think you’ll finish?’” he said. “I say, ‘I’ll be doing it the rest of my career, which is another 20 years.’ Nothing is that easy. For me, it’s a very worthwhile thing to be a part of.”

David Baugher
David Baugher is a freelance writer in St. Louis who contributed to several stories for the STL Beacon.