By Bonnie Chasteen
Each month, we highlight research MDC uses to improve fish, forest, and wildlife management.
“Hellbender” is the common name for Cryptobranchus alleganiensis, a large, seldom-seen aquatic salamander native to the rocky, cold-water streams of the Ozark Highlands.
“Hellbenders have dramatically declined over the past 40 years in Missouri, with a prominent shift in age structure towards large, mature individuals with young age-classes virtually absent,” said Missouri State Herpetologist Jeff Briggler. “Historic population estimates were over 45,000 animals. Today less than 2,300 are known from the wild in Missouri.”
Briggler said a multitude of factors have likely influenced hellbender populations. Chief among these are habitat alteration and degradation, disease, illegal harvest and disturbance, and predation. “Declines are likely due to a cumulative effect of these factors,” Briggler said.
In order to slow the hellbender’s decline and address the potential threats facing this animal in Missouri, Briggler and other partners are leading recovery efforts. His partners include researchers, state and federal agencies, the Saint Louis Zoo, and private citizens.
Some of the recovery team’s most significant progress has involved breeding and rearing young hellbenders at the Saint Louis Zoo and an MDC hatchery.
“Consistent captive-breeding of the species for six consecutive years at the Saint Louis Zoo and rearing of young obtained from eggs collected from the wild has resulted in over 5,000 animals released back into their native river,” Briggler said.
Captive-breeding achievements will not only buy time for the team to further address the species’ decline, but they will likely be the safety net needed to save this unique native species of the cold-water streams of the Ozark Highlands.
Editor - Angie Daly Morfeld
Associate Editor - Bonnie Chasteen
Staff Writer - Larry Archer
Staff Writer - Heather Feeler
Staff Writer - Kristie Hilgedick
Staff Writer - Joe Jerek
Creative Director - Stephanie Thurber
Art Director - Cliff White
Designer - Les Fortenberry
Designer - Marci Porter
Photographer - Noppadol Paothong
Photographer - David Stonner
Circulation - Laura Scheuler