As I divulged in my previous post, I really like amphibians. And my exotics and wildlife medicine course this semester has piqued my interest even more. When I came across an article today about an endangered species of salamander that lives in my own home state of Missouri, I had to know more! The Ozark hellbender is an aquatic salamander that is found only in Missouri and Arkansas (there are other species of hellbenders that live in different areas of the US). They are known for being the largest salamander found in North America, and they can get up to two feet long! That is a big salamander! They are also the official endangered species for the state of Missouri.
The press release, which you can read here, announced that over 1,000 hellbenders raised by the Saint Louis Zoo were successfully released back into the wild this summer. This is very exciting news, as hellbenders have been listed as endangered species since 2011. The zoo has a large conservation and breeding program to try to save the hellbenders, and they have successfully released upwards of 8,000 of the endangered amphibians in the past decade. You can read more about the Saint Louis Zoo’s efforts here.
Hellbenders are very unique. Even though they are aquatic animals, they tend to “walk” across the bottoms of streams and lakes instead of swim. They don’t have gills, and they only rarely surface. Their specialized skin absorbs oxygen which is how they “breathe.” They can also live a long time, up to 30 years in the wild, and they don’t reach sexual maturity until 5 years old at the eariliest. Female hellbenders lay eggs, but it’s the male who guards them for up to 80 days before they hatch. Read more about them here.
My exotic animal medicine course has only increased my interest in wild animals, especially amphibians. And it’s hard to not take a special interest in the Ozark hellbender because their habitats are the backyard lakes and streams I grew up visiting. While I’ve never seen a hellbender in person, I am hopeful that their populations will be able to make a comeback with the help of zoos and aquariums committed to their care.