The first hatched last week, and the scientists expected more than 100 more to hatch soon.
“There is a lot of excitement here — we’ve been working on this for a long long time,” Jeff Ettling, the zoo’s curator of herpetology and aquatics, said in a telephone news conference.
The Ozark hellbinder is one of the largest salamanders in the world, reaching about two feet in length. Long familiar to fishermen — the scientists repeated two of its many nicknames, “snot otter” and “old lasagna sides” — the species has declined precipitously in recent decades; fewer than 600 are believed to remain.
Scientists think this might be due to degradation of its natural habitat — clean running water — and disease caused by an organism called the chytrid fungus.
“The Ozark hellbender is essentially an aquatic canary in a coal mine,” Ettling said. “If there is something in the water that is causing the hellbender to decline, it is likely to be affecting people who live near these rivers.”
In fact, he added, researchers have noted a decline in the sperm count of human males living in the area where hellbenders are disappearing.
The research may also help save other animals. “Amphibians are in trouble worldwide, in large part because of the chytrid fungus,” said Eric Miller, director of the zoo’s WildCare Institute. “Anything we learn that helps us manage the chytrid fungus in captivity, and more importantly in the future in the wild, would have impact on all amphibians.”
He and herpetologist Jeff Briggler said scientists could learn important information about the spread of chytrid fungus by tracking the newly hatched, disease-free hellbinders after they are released into the wild. “If we can catch them in the future and determine if they are infected in the wild . . . it’ll help us address some of the reasons for decline,” Briggler said.
The scientists bred the hellbenders in a spacious facility mimicking the creatures’ natural habitat: two outdoor streams 40 feet long and six feet deep, with large rocks for hiding and man-made nest boxes. Water was treated and sprinklers were timed to simulate the Ozark environment.