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First St. Louis Zoo-born Eastern hellbender reproduces in the wild

 The male hellbender found in the Gasconade river.
Missouri Department of Conservation
The male hellbender found in the Gasconade river.

An Eastern hellbender raised in the St. Louis Zoo is the first zoo-reared salamander of its kind known to reproduce in the wild. Researchers from the Missouri Department of Conservation found his nest in October, in the place he was born, captured and rereleased.

The St. Louis Zoo, in partnership with the department, has released over 12,000 hellbenders since 2008.

“We have two confirmed ones with some great data with them,” said state herpetologist Jeff Briggler. “There’s a lot of positives, just by these couple of encounters that we have documented.”

Missouri is the only state where both the eastern and Ozark hellbender are native. The slow-to-mature amphibians are found in fossil records dating back 160 million years. The Conservation Department, along with the St. Louis Zoo’s Ron and Karen Goellner Center for Hellbender Conservation, began efforts to reverse the decline in the early 2000s. An Ozark hellbender raised at the zoo fathered a mass of eggs last October.

While the population is rising, exact numbers are difficult and expensive to track. The success of these "gentle giants" is traced with a chip that’s inserted before release. Catching the implanted animals during surveying can be difficult.

Justin Elden, curator of herpetology and aquatics at the Zoo, said hellbenders are cryptic, secretive creatures. Numbers might be rising faster than known.

“If there’s one there’s likely many more,” said Elden. “It’s exciting stuff, and my hope and thought is that this is the first of many that we will find.”

The Eastern hellbender that reproduced was released into the Gasconade River in June 2018. It’s now fathered 86 well-developed eggs in that same place.

“Seeing successful reproduction like we’re seeing now, it’s huge. I mean it’s very big. It’s proven not only can released animals survive in the wild, but it’s also proving they’re reproductively fit and behaving like wild adults,” said Briggler.

He said researchers want to continue seeing these animals mature and reproduce but eventually hope to phase out their captive propagation.

“Ultimately, we don’t want to be releasing animals anymore. We want to have enough animals in the wild that have grown up, matured, reproducing on their own and producing natural populations,” said Briggler.

The future is looking up for the species. The Goellner Center will continue monitoring progress with the Conservation Department. Researchers said community support is also crucial to the cause.

“People have lived side by side with these animals for thousands of years,” said Elden. “We can care about hellbenders as much as we want but if the people of Missouri don’t care, then it’s going to be close to impossible.”

Copyright 2023 St. Louis Public Radio. To see more, visit St. Louis Public Radio.

Lauren Brennecke