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Hellbender On The Comeback Trail, Thanks To St. Louis Zoo Program

Brett Blume
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11/1/12-Chawna Schuette, lead Hellbender keeper at the St. Louis Zoo, uses a flashlight to check on dozens of newborn Hellbenders Thursday. A decade-long program at the zoo is dedicated to bringing the endangered species back from the brink of extinction. (KMOX/Brett Blume)

11/1/12-Chawna Schuette, lead Hellbender keeper at the St. Louis Zoo, uses a flashlight to check on dozens of newborn Hellbenders Thursday. A decade-long program at the zoo is dedicated to bringing the endangered species back from the brink of extinction. (KMOX/Brett Blume)

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ST. LOUIS (KMOX) -  The St. Louis Zoo’s Ron Goellner Center for Hellbender Conservation has announced that eight female Ozark hellbenders have laid more than 2,800 fertile eggs in the zoo’s artificial nest boxes in simulated streams.

“This is significant because for the first time, all three of the zoo’s river populations reproduced, including hellbenders bred from a population in a habitat that has been maintained indoors for the past eight years,” said Jeff Ettling, curator of Herpetology & Aquatics and director of the Goellner Center.

This marks only the second time that endangered Ozark hellbenders have been bred in captivity.

The zoo and its partners, the Missouri Department of Conservation and United State Fish & Wildlife Service, announced the world’s first successful captive breeding of the species in November 2011.

Watching over the whole process in a dark, dank back room of the zoo’s reptile house Thursday was the lead Hellbender keeper, Chawna Schuette.

She explained the importance of saving a species that some might dismiss as just an “ugly old salamander”.

“These animals are important because they serve as a litmus test for the environment,” Schuette said while taking a closer look at a tray containing dozens of tiny, translucent eggs. “They’re sort of a canary in a coalmine…if these guys are not doing well, the water quality issues that are impacting these are going to impact us.”

So what about that name…”Hellbender”?

Schuette said nobody really knows for sure how that name came to be, but among the many theories she has a favorite.

It’s been said that when you grab a Hellbender, it twists and gyrates “like a soul trapped in Dante’s Inferno”.

But it’s not like the nicknames that handlers throw around when discussing the amphibian are any more flattering.

“We like to call them ‘snot otters, old lasagna-sides, water dogs’,” she laughed. “They have a lot of names.”

Thanks to efforts like the one at the St. Louis Zoo, Hellbenders also have something they almost didn’t a few short years ago — a future.

Rivers in south-central Missouri and parts of Arkansas once supported up to 8,000 Ozark Hellbenders.

Today fewer than 600 exist in the wild, and in October 2011 it was added to the federal endangered species list.

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