For the first time in the world, hellbenders have been bred in captivity!
The St. Louis Zoo recently announced they have successfully bred hellbenders. Hellbenders, Cryptobranchus allegheniensis, are large aquatic salamanders that live their whole lives underwater. They don't have gills or lungs to breath, but instead rely on oxygen exchange from their wrinkly skin. The live in cold, clean streams in the Appalachians and the Ozarks, and their numbers have plummeted throughout their range due to pressures from pollution, disease and collection. In fact, those are probably just a few of the problems these majestic beasts face. Hellbenders are state endangered throughout most of their range, and the Ozark Hellbender was recently named to the federal endangered species list in October of this year. There have been ongoing efforts across the midwest for the past 5 or 10 years to breed them in captivity, and the St. Louis Zoo has been leading the charge.
I have been extremely fortunate to observe the eastern subspecies in the wild a few times and contribute with research efforts. They are truly amazing animals, and I hope we can work to find ways to reverse their decline. Establishing captive breeding populations is definitely one step in the right direction. There needs to be huge leaps in conservation of the streams and rivers they call home, where pollution, siltation, sedimentation and damns have severely damaged populations.
If you happen upon a hellbender, please report it to your state DNR. They are completely harmless and pose no threat to human or pet. Please return them where they were found and wish them well on their fight for survival.