NOV. 30, 2011 -- With nicknames like "snot otters" and "old lasagna sides," they might not be as cute as some of the other new babies at the Saint Louis Zoo, but the hatching of 63 Ozark hellbenders has regional conservation experts excited.
This successful hatching marks the first time the endangered salamander has been bred in captivity. The Saint Louis Zoo has been working in partnership with the Missouri Department of Conservation to rescue the Ozark hellbenders, which have seen drastic declines in the wild.
Rivers in south-central Missouri and adjacent Arkansas once supported up to 8,000 Ozark hellbenders, according to a zoo news release. Today, fewer than 600 exist in the world, so few that the amphibian was added in October 2011 to the federal endangered species list.
Due to these drastic declines, captive breeding became a priority in the long-term recovery of the species. Once the captive-bred larvae are 3 to 8 years old, they can then be released into their natural habitat: the Ozark aquatic ecosystem.
The first hellbender hatched at the zoo's Ron Goellner Center for Hellbender Conservation on Nov. 15, and currently there are about 120 additional eggs that should hatch within the next week. The eggs are maintained in climate- and water quality-controlled trays behind the scenes in the zoo's Herpetarium. For 45 to 60 days after emerging, the tiny larvae will retain their yolk sack for nutrients and move very little as they continue their development. As the larvae continue to grow, they will develop legs and eventually lose their external gills by the time they reach 1.5 to 2 years of age. At sexual maturity, at 5 to 8 years of age, adult lengths can approach two feet. Both parents are wild bred: the male has been at the zoo for the past two years and the female arrived this past September.
An adult hellbender is on display in the zoo's Herpetarium. Learn more about the Ozark Hellbenders on the zoo's website.
Pictured: Hellbender larvae at the Saint Louis Zoo. Photo byMark Wanner/Saint Louis Zoo.