ST. LOUIS, Mo. – The hellbender, otherwise known as the ‘mud puppy’ is trying to make a comeback in Missouri’s waters thanks to help from the Ron Goellner Center for Hellbender Conservation at the St. Louis Zoo. The group effort recently released more than 800 of the salamanders over the summer.
The aquatic salamander has been a staple at the St. Louis Zoo for 30 years. It is the largest in both Missouri and the northern United States, and is listed as a federally endangered amphibian by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Missouri is home to the only two subspecies of the hellbender, known as the Ozark and Eastern.
The hellbender population has declined by at least 70% in the past 40 years and has almost a 100% chance of complete extinction over the next 75 years without special programs put into place to help reintroduce the amphibian into the wild. A hellbender’s biggest threats within the ecosystem are pollution, stream impoundments and siltation.
The zoo has constructed a climate-controlled habitat inside their herpetarium, exclusively for hellbender breeding purposes. The herpetarium is a 32-foot-long man-made stream with a rock bed, the purest water available and an occasional rain shower.
Since 2008, the zoo has released 9,476 hellbenders back into the wild, with close to 2,000 of them being released just in 2020 and 2021.
Before release, the salamanders are gathered early in the morning at the St. Louis Zoo and transported inside large, aerated coolers to their final destination. But first, each hellbender is closely chosen according to it’s sex, health, age and native river. Once they have arrived at the water’s edge, keepers will locate the best drop-off region which is typically around large rocks or pools full of their favorite prey, crayfish, otherwise known as ‘crawfish’.
Not harmful towards humans, mud puppies other favorite feasts include worms, fish, snails, tadpoles, fish eggs and sometimes even other hellbenders or their eggs.
The Ron Goellner Center for Hellbender Conservation’s goal was to establish a professional breeding ground for the hellbender along with a husbandry protocol to bring hellbender larvae up to sexual maturity in order for release.