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Missouri’s Eastern Hellbender Salamanders Could Get Federal Protection

Eastern hellbender salamanders, which have been declining all over the U.S. for decades, are doing so poorly in Missouri that they may receive federal protection.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has proposed including Missouri’s population of eastern hellbenders on the endangered species list. Since the 1970s, the number of eastern hellbenders in the state has dropped by more than 90 percent.

The species lives in 15 states in the Midwest and the South. But it has declined largely due to river pollution and overharvesting from the illegal pet trade. Because hellbenders — like many other amphibian species — have extremely sensitive skin, anything that negatively affects their physical health is a sign of environmental problems, said Lauren Augustine, the St. Louis Zoo’s curator of herpetology.

“I think the federal protection will increase the attention given to the species,” Augustine said. A lot of people don’t know what a hellbender is or their role is in the environment.”

The salamander also supports native fish species that eat their larvae, and it keeps invertebrate species that it eats, like crayfish, in check. Hellbenders are the largest salamanders in North America, growing up to two feet long, and can live for 30 years.

Missouri is home to two subspecies of hellbenders. In addition to the eastern hellbender, the state is home to the Ozark hellbender, which has been federally protected since 2011. Salamanders live in many rivers in southern Missouri, such as the Meramec and Gasconade rivers.

Federal wildlife officials have found that all five historic populations in Missouri are unhealthy and one is on the verge of disappearing. It’s unclear why population drop is more drastic in Missouri than other states, said Trisha Crabill, a biologist at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife’s Missouri field office.

“The things we think are most likely contributing to the decline are chytrid fungus, sedimentation and water-quality issues,” Crabill said.

Chytrid fungus can cause a lethal skin disease for many amphibian species. Frogs and salamanders hydrate through their skin, and the fungus can disrupt that process and cause the animals to eventually suffocate.

The St. Louis Zoo has been breeding the Ozark hellbenders in captivity, and it has been collecting eggs of eastern hellbenders. Augustine hopes to breed the eastern hellbenders this year.

The federal wildlife agency is taking feedback on its proposal to list Missouri’s eastern hellbenders for 60 days.

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Eli Chen is the science and environment reporter at St. Louis Public Radio. She comes to St. Louis after covering the eroding Delaware coast, bat-friendly wind turbine technology, mouse love songs and various science stories for Delaware Public Media/WDDE-FM. Before that, she corralled robots and citizen scientists for the World Science Festival in New York City and spent a brief stint booking guests for Science Friday’s live events in 2013. Eli grew up in the northwest suburbs of Chicago, where a mixture of teen angst, a love for Ray Bradbury novels and the growing awareness about climate change propelled her to become the science storyteller she is today. When not working, Eli enjoys a solid bike ride, collects classic disco, watches standup comedy and is often found cuddling other people’s dogs. She has a bachelor’s in environmental sustainability and creative writing at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and has a master’s degree in journalism, with a focus on science reporting, from the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism.
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