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20-plus-year effort to boost hellbender populations in Missouri hits major milestone

A man in a wet suit holds a male Ozark hellbender, which is a brown and green salamander that is on the endangered species list.
Missouri Department of Conservation
Missouri state herpetologist Jeff Briggler holds a male Ozark hellbender in the Current River.

A joint effort by the state of Missouri and the St. Louis Zoo to boost the populations of two endangered salamanders has reached a major milestone.

Researchers in October discovered that an Ozark hellbender that had been born at the zoo and released into the wild was protecting a clutch of 128 eggs. A later visit confirmed the eggs had hatched. It was the first time a hellbender raised in captivity had successfully reproduced in the wild.

“If one animal is breeding in the wild, I’m sure others are. We just have to get lucky enough to find those animals,” said state herpetologist Jeff Briggler, who was on the team of researchers that discovered the eggs. “But definitely this is a huge milestone that we’re making progress in the recovery of this species.”

Rivers in the Ozarks used to support as many as 27,000 Ozark and eastern hellbenders, which have existed in the fossil record for more than 160 million years. But poor water quality, habitat loss and illegal collecting had pushed the population as low as 2,000. Both the Ozark and the eastern hellbender have been on the federal endangered species list since 2011.

In 2001, the zoo began breeding and raising Ozark and eastern hellbenders in captivity for the Department of Conservation to release into the wild. Since then, more than 10,000 of the reptiles have been released into native rivers.

Justin Elden, director of the zoo’s hellbender conservation center, said he was “ecstatic” when he got the call from Briggler.

“This is the culmination of years and years of hard work and dedication trying to save this species,” he said. “We haven’t quite yet saved the species, but the chances of these animals going extinct within our lifetimes are drastically decreased.”

Rachel is the justice correspondent at St. Louis Public Radio.

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