For the first time ever, an endangered amphibian found only in a few Missouri and Arkansas counties has been successfully bred in captivity.
Officials with the St. Louis Zoo and Missouri Department of Conservation said Wednesday that 63 Ozark hellbenders have been bred at the zoo. The first hatched on Nov. 15, and an additional 120 eggs are expected to hatch within the next week.
The breeding is the result of a decade-long collaboration of the zoo and the conservation department.
Jeff Ettling, the curator of herpetology and aquatics at the zoo, says the hellbender is an important barometer of the health of streams and rivers.
"It is essentially an aquatic canary in a coal mine. That’s because capillaries near the surface of the hellbender’s skin absorb oxygen directly from the water, as well as hormones, heavy metals and pesticides. If there is something in the water that is causing the hellbender population to decline, it is likely to be affecting the people who live near these rivers," Ettling said.
Rivers in the Ozarks region of southern Missouri and northern Arkansas once supported up to 8,000 Ozark hellbenders, but experts believe fewer than 600 now exist in the wild. The hellbender was added to the federal endangered species list in October.