ST. LOUIS (KTVI) – The Missouri Department of Conservation teamed up with the Saint Louis Zoo and U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to breed and release over 1,000 endangered hellbenders back to their natural habitat this summer despite COVID-19.
According to the Missouri Department of Conservation(MDC), hellbenders are the official endangered species of Missouri and the largest aquatic salamanders in North America.
Missouri is the only state that has both subspecies – the Ozark hellbender and the eastern hellbender.
A population assessment showed all hellbender populations have an above 96 percent risk of extinction over the next 75 years unless the population increases.
According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, both the Ozark and eastern hellbender populations in Missouri have declined more than 70 percent over the past 40 years.
To slow endangerment of the amphibians, the Saint Louis Zoo began raising hellbenders from eggs.
Since 2008, more than 8,600 Saint Louis Zoo-raised endangered hellbenders (664 eastern and 7,977 Ozark) have been reintroduced to the wild in Missouri.
The Zoo houses facilities to simulate the habitat of hellbender breeding groups. The facilities include two 40 by 6 feet outdoor streams with natural gravel, large rocks for hiding, and artificial nest boxes for egg-laying.
Every year, hellbenders are released to native Ozark rivers based on when they were hatched.
MDC State Herpetologist, Jeff Briggler says the process of releasing the hellbenders was different this year due to the pandemic.
“The restoration team’s priority was to reduce contact and maintain social distancing among individuals,” Briggler said. “To achieve this, animal transfers from the Zoo staff to the state herpetologist occurred in open-air parking lots.”
Briggler said crews who released hellbenders were reduced and limited to two individuals per boat.
MDC says in addition to breeding efforts, the Zoo has also been head-starting juvenile Ozark and eastern hellbenders, hatched from eggs collected in the wild, for future release.
Once the captive-bred larvae are two to eight-years-old, they can then be released into their natural habitat – the Ozark aquatic ecosystem.
Missouri Department of Conservation biologists are monitoring the success of these released animals in the wild.