Conserving the Nature of America
Press Release
Help for the hellbender: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announces final recovery plan for endangered Ozark hellbender 

September 3, 2021

Contact(s):

Georgia Parham, Georgia_Parham@fws.gov, 812-593-8501

Trisha Crabill, Trisha_Crabill@fws.gov, 573-234-2132 x 121



Dozens of small aquaria and three artificial streams at the St. Louis Zoo’s Ron Goellner Center for Hellbender Conservation house the future of the endangered Ozark hellbender. The state-of-the-art captive breeding facility is one of the pillars supporting efforts to prevent extinction and recover the rare salamander. We at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announce the release of the final recovery plan for the Ozark hellbender, now available for partners and others to guide efforts to save the species.

Recovery planning is one step in a process to address threats to endangered and threatened species. Plans provide a road map for private, tribal, federal and state cooperation in conserving listed species and their ecosystems. While a recovery plan provides guidance on how best to help listed species achieve recovery, it is not a regulatory document. The public is invited to provide input as the plan is developed. Once a recovery plan is finalized, recovery partners outline specific actions in an implementation strategy.

The goal of the Ozark hellbender recovery plan is to stop the species’ decline and help build populations back to the point that they no longer need the protection of the Endangered Species Act.  Recovery actions for the Ozark hellbender focus on studying and addressing threats to the species. At the same time, programs like those at the St. Louis Zoo will help stabilize and grow the species’ population.

Hellbenders, including the Ozark and another subspecies, the eastern hellbender, are large, fully aquatic salamanders, meaning they spend all of their lives in water. Growing to lengths of more than 2 feet, they are the continent’s largest salamander. They are brown and blotchy, broad and flat, with four stumpy legs, tiny eyes and a long tail. Folds of skin along their sides sometimes give them a ruffled appearance, although they serve as an aid to respiration.

The Ozark subspecies is found only in southern Missouri and northern Arkansas and is Missouri’s official state endangered species. Hellbenders share a preference for cool, clear streams and rivers with many large rocks. Cool, clean water is important because adult hellbenders breathe entirely through their skin (young hellbenders lose their gills at about 2 years old).

The Ozark hellbender was found in large numbers through the 1970s, but began to decline, possibly due in part to degraded water quality in the streams and rivers it inhabited. Dam construction, sand and gravel mining and other activities increased sediments in the water and otherwise altered water quality and flow. Other causes for decline include disease (particularly amphibian chytrid fungus), illegal collection, disturbance of nesting and cover habitat on river bottoms and pollution. The Ozark subspecies became a federally endangered species in 2011; about 915 Ozark hellbenders are estimated to live in southern Missouri and northern Arkansas.

The Ron Goellner Center at the St. Louis Zoo houses 3,000 to 5,000 hellbenders at any given time.The center has also established three outdoor artificial streams to assist with conservation-breeding efforts. The facility celebrated the world’s first captive breeding of Ozark hellbenders in 2011; since then, successful reproduction has occurred in all constructed streams, resulting in thousands of larval hellbenders for release and sustainable propagation efforts.

Along with the captive-bred hellbenders, the center has hatched and reared additional animals from wild-collected eggs, increasing the genetic representation of the hellbenders available for release. The center continues to refine hatching and rearing techniques, adding thousands of hellbenders back into native habitat and increasing the odds that the Ozark hellbender will continue to be part of the region’s natural landscape.

View the final recovery plan for the Ozark hellbender.


The mission of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is working with others to conserve, protect, and enhance fish, wildlife, plants, and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people. We are both a leader and trusted partner in fish and wildlife conservation, known for our scientific excellence, stewardship of lands and natural resources, dedicated professionals, and commitment to public service. For more information on our work and the people who make it happen, visit www.fws.gov.

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