Hopeful for Hellbenders…
BY JANICE EATON, NEOSHO NFH
facility and the requirements necessary for a successful hellbender production program
as Neosho staff looks on. Credit: USFWS
Neosho National Fish Hatchery (NFH) Hatchery staff members traveled to Lake Taneycomo, just outside of Branson, Missouri, to tour Shepherd of the Hills State Fish Hatchery (SFH). The visit was to explore the hatchery’s Hellbender propagation program. Currently there are only two facilities in the world producing the endangered hellbenders, St. Louis Zoo and Shepherd of the Hills SFH. Neosho National Fish Hatchery hopes to become the third.
Hellbenders are the largest salamander in North America and are harmless aquatic creatures that are an important part of the Ozark stream ecosystem. In Missouri, Arkansas, and throughout their geographic range, hellbenders are suffering from an alarming population decline and need help if they are to survive. So ugly they are cute, hellbenders are classified as amphibians and adults range in length from 11 to more than 20 inches. They have a wide, flat head with tiny eyes and a broad and vertically compressed tail. Their body and legs are covered with prominent folds of grayish and yellowish browns and sometimes reddish browns.
The hellbenders in North America are the eastern hellbenders, ranging from southern New York State south to northern Georgia and west to Missouri. The Ozark hellbender, a subspecies of the eastern, is found only in south central Missouri and a few rivers in extreme north central Arkansas. Missouri is the only state that has both types of hellbenders. Hellbenders cannot live out of water but seldom swim; instead they walk slowly along the stream bottom. Most of their time is spent hiding under large, flat rocks, coming out at night to search for food. They are rarely seen. They are known to eat a variety of aquatic prey, such as small fish, aquatic insects and crayfish and typically live 30 to 35 years. Hellbenders have been in North America for more than six million years and if there is something in the water that is causing their decline, it could possibly affect us as well.
Hellbenders need to be protected and their survival needs to be ensured because they are a part of the overall health of the natural aquatic environment. As a protected species in Missouri and Arkansas, they are not allowed to be taken from the wild for any reason. The Neosho National Fish Hatchery is hoping to help turn the tide for these long-lived, unusual amphibians.