This was a historic moment for state conservation officials working to support the declining population of the endangered giant salamander.
Partnering with the Saint Louis Zoo and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for almost 20 years, the Missouri Department of Conservation shared a video of the “significant milestone.”
Wildlife experts traveled to an Ozark river — the same river where officials released the first captive-raised hellbender in 2008 — to release several “snot otters,” including No. 10,000.
“We’re hoping a large number of them will survive to increase the population,” officials said, adding that the endangered population should have at least another 30 to 40 years in the wild thanks to the help of conservation programs.
“The future is looking bright,” an official said.
What are hellbenders?
Hellbenders are aquatic salamanders that tend to live along the rocky bottoms of streams and rivers, according to the Missouri Department of Conservation. The Saint Louis Zoo says that while they can swim, they tend to walk along the bottom of streams.
They thrive off eating crayfish and other small fish and insects.
The hellbender is Missouri’s official endangered species.
Why are hellbenders important?
“Hellbenders are a major indicator of the overall health of a river or stream,” according to the state. “If there is something in the water causing their numbers to decline, it can affect other species as well, including us.”
They also help maintain a “healthy natural aquatic environment” along with crayfish populations.
To ensure the salamander population doesn’t continue declining, a captive-breeding program raises hellbenders until they are ready for introduction into the wild, when they are about 3 to 8 years old.
What threatens the hellbender population?
Predators of the hellbenders include river otters, raccoons, fish and mammals.
“Hellbenders face many dangerous predators, but their biggest enemy isn’t a wild animal - it’s us,” according to the Saint Louis Zoo. “People have caused problems for hellbenders by altering and polluting their habitat. Since 1990, hellbenders that live in the Ozark Mountains of Missouri and Arkansas have suffered greatly: their numbers have declined by more than 70%.”
State officials say hellbenders should never be removed from the wild when encountered.