It's difficult to imagine an animal less likely to draw admiring crowds at the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore.
A homely giant salamander that hides under rocks, slimes its enemies when threatened, and goes by such aliases as snot otter, devil dog and Allegheny alligator, the hellbender is nevertheless seen as an important and valuable addition to the zoo's collection.
Two of the increasingly scarce animals inhabit Hellbender Country, a $200,000 exhibit that is set to open Thursday as part of the Maryland Wilderness area.
The animals immediately began exploring the faux rocks and sheltered crevices at the bottom of their simulated mountain stream Tuesday, when assistant curator Kevin Murphy introduced them. One curiously inspected a photographer's underwater video camera until the exhibit's bright "daytime" lights finally sent the nocturnal creatures into a corner for a snooze.
Zoo officials hope the hellbenders and the Baltimore exhibit become a more active part of Head Start, an effort led by zoos in Buffalo, N.Y., Wheeling, W.Va. and St. Louis, Mo., to educate the public about the salamanders, and to hold, raise and return hundreds of them to their native streams. In time, Murphy hopes the Maryland Zoo staff may learn to breed them.
"A huge component of the Maryland Zoo is the Maryland Wilderness," he said. "And a really big component is to work with our local species. The hellbender is arguably Maryland's most endangered animal species."
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