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Science and the Environment

Endangered Species: Hellbender Salamanders

In this installment of KSMU's Endangered Species Series, Michele Skalicky tells us about the Hellbender Salamander.

They've been referred to as something only a mother could love. Their nicknames are snot otter and devil dog. They're hellbender salamanders, and they're in trouble. No one knows just why, but hellbender numbers have been dropping dramatically in the United States.

There are 2 subspecies of the hellbender--the Eastern Hellbender lives in several states, and, while its numbers are declining, it's not in immediate danger of extinction. The Ozark Hellbender, however, live in only 2 states—MO and AR—and they could face extinction in the next 10 to 20 years.

They're both on the state's endangered species list. The Ozark Hellbender is on the federal candidate list for future listing as federally endangered. Jeff Briggler, is state herpetologist with the Missouri Department of Conservation.

"We're showing data anywhere from 77 to 80% decline in all of our rivers in Missouri, therefore, both of them are at risk of being extirpated probably within the next 15 to 20 years if we do not propagate them."

Breeding of hellbender salamanders in the wild has dramatically declined, so efforts to propagate the salamander are underway both at the St. Louis Zoo and at the Shepard of the Hills Fish Hatchery.

sound at fish hatchery

John Miller, manager of the visitor center at the hatchery in Branson says the dept. of conservation chose that facility because of its stable water supply coming from the bottom of Table Rock Lake.

"Not only is it very cold, which is what we need, we can adjust the temperature. We have well water and chiller unit water, so on any given day we can range that temperature up to what our animals need, so if we want to simulate a warm spring rain, we can turn the well water on and raise that temperature up. Most hatcheries can't do that. They only have a spring or a lake. They can't manipulate that water like we can do here, and with 14 million gallons, we can take care of a lot of animals including the hellbender."

In the past, eggs have been found in the wild, allowed to hatch in captivity and they young are eventually released back into area rivers. But at Shepherd of the Hills, they're taking a different approach. They hope to be able to get the hellbenders to breed in captivity.

"They're trying to induce him into producing this little sperm cloud. The female either smells it or it washes down to the female and then she releases her eggs, but no one's ever done this in captivity."

Miller says they hope to get four or five pairs of hellbenders soon. They're not sure how many they'll need. In fact, he says there are a lot of unknowns surrounding the propagation project.

"We're on the bottom edge of the learning curve with this. There's so many things we don't know, but we've got to do something."

He says no one's sure exactly what eats hellbenders and why they're not maturing enough in the wild to reproduce on their own.

"So, if we can get them to breed in captivity, we're not going to damage the wild population, we can then do some studies. For example, are trout eating them? Are bass eating them at a young stage? If that's the case, maybe we can put them in places where they're not going to be so subject to being eaten by these animals."

Jeff Briggler says it's still largely a mystery why hellbenders, which can live up to 50 years in the wild and can reach lengths of 24 inches, are disappearing. He says many research projects are underway to look at things like water quality issues, bank erosion, sedimentation, diseases and changes in rivers over time.

Students and Faculty in the biology department at Missouri State University have been working for many years to learn more about hellbenders. Research they conducted in the late 90s found that young individuals aren't getting into the population. Department Head Alicia Mathis says studies they did involving hellbender sperm counts found a problem with reproduction. There are some theories as to why this is occurring including this one.

"There is some sort of pesticide in the water that mimics estrogen and hormones, and those hormones are negatively influencing the males."

Another question she says researchers are looking into is "are young hellbenders surviving to adulthood?" Mathis says if the young aren't surviving, it could be due to an introduced predator such as trout.

"We're particularly concerned about trout because they have had no opportunity to develop protection against trout predation."

Mathis says they're currently conducting a study, funded by the MO Dept. of Conservation, to see how hellbenders and their fish predators react to one another. Once the exact reason or reasons for the hellbenders' decline is identified, then comes the even more difficult task—deciding what and how changes can be made to fix the problem.

"There's not an easy fix in any of those. For example, if it turns out to be a water quality issue, which I suspect that's at least part of the problem, this is something we really want to know about because what affects hellbenders might also be affecting us, so it's a really important question to get at. This is not a trivial question."

Mathis is optimistic—though guardedly--that hellbender salamanders can be saved simply because of the large number of people out there who are passionate about saving them.

"The will is there to solve the problem, but there are so many unknown variables that you really can't be more than guardedly optimistic at this point."

John Miller, too, is optimistic that, thru their research, they can make a difference.

"It's breaking new ground. No one's ever done this before but it's just one of those things that we really have to make the effort, otherwise they're going to be gone."

Jeff Briggler says they'll continue the propagation project at Shepard of the Hills as long as necessary with the ultimate goal to get hellbender populations in MO rivers back to where they were in the 70s. John Miller hopes the work at the Shepard of the Hills Hatchery will ultimately benefit other states, as well.

For KSMU, I'm Michele Skalicky.