Raising Hellbenders

March 10, 2011

The WCS Bronx Zoo, Buffalo Zoo, and New York State DEC team up to save one of the largest salamanders in the world—the eastern hellbender, AKA “devil dog,” “Allegheny alligator,” or “snot otter.”

As if hellbenders didn't have a menacing enough name, this large salamander also goes by "devil dog," "Allegheny alligator," and the lovely "snot otter." With monikers like those, it's little wonder this New York native needs some help to restore its reputation—and its numbers. The hellbenders are in trouble, and WCS is offering a group of young ones a head start at its Bronx Zoo.

Actually, in some circles, the eastern hellbender is highly sought-after. Over-collection for the pet trade is one of the primary causes of its decline, in addition to disease, pollution, and habitat destruction.

The group of 41 juvenile eastern hellbenders at the Bronx Zoo currently live in an off-exhibit, biosecure room in the Amphibian Propagation Center. Head to tail, they measure just 7 inches, though eventually they'll grow up to two feet long. At two-and-a-half years old, WCS will release these little devil dogs from whence they came—the wilds of western New York. Found near the Allegheny River, the salamanders' eggs hatched in October 2009 at the Buffalo Zoo, a conservation partner in the project.

Various studies over the past decade have shown that the wild population of eastern hellbenders is aging, producing fewer and fewer offspring.

"This 'head-starting' program will enable us to release young hellbenders back to the wild at a life-stage that may enable them to survive and thrive in New York," said Patricia Riexinger, director of the Division of Fish, Wildlife and Marine Resources at the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, another conservation partner in the project. "The hellbender is an important part of our state's aquatic biodiversity, and it's clear that we have to take dramatic steps to ensure its continued presence in New York."

Eastern hellbenders are typically a brown or reddish-brown color with a pale underbelly. Only two other larger salamander species exist: the Chinese hellbender and the Japanese giant salamander. Both of these aquatic giants grow up to six feet.

These species of "Special Concern" live in rocky, swift-flowing streams. With flattened heads and bodies, small dorsal eyes, and slimy, wrinkly skin, the amphibians can slide under large rocks in shallow rapids as they await prey. When swimming, a narrow edge along the dorsal side of their tails helps propel them through water.

"The Bronx Zoo has a proud tradition of being very hands-on in our work to conserve and protect important species like the hellbender," said Jim Breheny, WCS senior vice president and Bronx Zoo director. "Our extraordinary facility and staff give us the ability to take a leadership role in wildlife conservation projects and immediately impact wildlife health both locally and abroad."

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