While any healthy hellbender eggs are reason to celebrate, there was something extra special about this hellbender dad and his clutch of eggs found in the Current River.
“We are very excited to announce this news,” Missouri State Herpetologist Jeff Briggler said in an April 13 news release. “This is the first documented event of a zoo-raised animal fathering a clutch of eggs in the wild.”
‘Just a tiny egg’
Staff members with the Missouri Department of Conservation and National Park Service collected this dad in fall 2013 when he was “just a tiny egg” in a natural nest found in the Current River.
The eggs hatched while at the Saint Louis Zoo, where experts raised the hellbenders with hopes to one day release them back into the wild.
“We have a dedicated team of hellbender keepers, life-support systems technicians, and veterinary staff who work tirelessly to make sure these animals get the best care possible at the Saint Louis Zoo,” said Justin Elden, curator of herpetology and aquatics at the Saint Louis Zoo, and the director of the Saint Louis Zoo WildCare Institute Ron and Karen Goellner Center for Hellbender Conservation.
Then, in July 2019, the male hellbender was released into the Current River.
“This experience allowed for this animal to flourish for the six years it was reared at the zoo and prepare it for its release to the wild,” Elden said in the news release. “Caring for hellbenders through their lives, from tiny eggs to sub-adults, takes a tremendous amount of work, but it’s absolutely worth it knowing we’re aiding in the conservation of wild animals and wild places.”
While this particular hellbender is one of more than 10,000 that have been released into Missouri waterways, officials said they’re only now becoming old enough to breed. The ones that have been released have small chips embedded under their skin so they can be identified if ever encountered again.
That’s how biologists know this hellbender dad was raised by the Saint Louis Zoo.
“Now he’s made history,” zoo officials said in a Facebook post.
‘A needle in a haystack’
“We’re lucky to find 20 nests in the wild a year and finding a tagged father that was raised at the Saint Louis Zoo was like finding a needle in a haystack,” Briggler said. “We have been patiently waiting for this significant achievement to occur.”
Biologists found this “needle” in October, as they monitor the hellbender population and collect eggs to raise every fall.
The dad was first seen with “healthy, well-developed eggs,” officials said. Biologists returned to the nest later, where some of the eggs were beginning to hatch as their father protected them.
“Our ultimate goal was to see the successful reproduction of a zoo-reared animal in the wild,” Briggler said. “And we’ve now accomplished that goal in our journey to save the unique Ozark salamander.”
Officials believe this was the dad’s first time reproducing based on his size.
“We couldn’t be prouder that the Ozark hellbender father was reared at the Saint Louis Zoo,” the zoo said.
‘Major indicator of overall health’
Rivers in southern Missouri and northern Arkansas were once home to about 27,000 Ozark hellbenders, officials said. Now it’s believed fewer than 1,000 exist all over the world.
“Because the species requires cool, well-oxygenated, clean running water to survive, hellbenders are a major indicator of overall health of a river or stream,” according to the release.
The species is threatened by habitat degradation, over-collecting, disease, predators and poor water quality, according to the Missouri Department of Conservation.
They can grow to about 2 feet long, and they feed on small fish, snails and insects.