July 11, 2005

Salamander Species Has Deformities

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) -- The hellbender salamander's numbers continue to decline, and wildlife officials say more are showing up with unexplained deformities.

The aquatic animals native to Missouri and Arkansas are considered endangered in Missouri, and the St. Louis Zoo's Center for the Conservation of the Hellbender said the population of one subspecies has declined 70 percent in the state over the past 10 years.

"It is very, very disheartening," said Jeff Briggler, a herpetologist at the Missouri Department of Conservation.

Now, hellbenders are being found with deformities that include missing or misshapen limbs, wounds that will not heal, and skin lesions.

Jeff Ettling, a curator of reptiles at the St. Louis Zoo, said the deformities have been found on adult hellbenders - and are not birth defects.

Many have been found in the Spring River, Ettling said.

One was missing skin on its head, he said, while "These other ones will be missing limbs but won't have any wounds on their body. They will just be missing their front legs, maybe one back leg or missing all four legs, up to the elbow. They are walking around basically on severed legs. It's bizarre when you find them all in one area like that."

The hellbender, North America's largest salamander, can grow to around 2 feet in length. Its skin is gray to muddy brown, and its tiny eyes are set in a wide, flat head.

When it is threatened or attacked, it exudes mucus from its loose, slimy skin.

"Everybody says, 'How ugly,'" Briggler said. "But they are so ugly that they almost become beautiful in your mind when you see one."

Missouri is alone among U.S. states in being the home of two subspecies, the eastern hellbender and the Ozark hellbender.

The former is found in streams that flow north to the Missouri river, while the Ozark hellbender is found in south-flowing streams in southern Missouri and Arkansas.

Ettling, the reptile curator, said amphibians are often the first to show ill effects from environmental change.

"If it is affecting them, it's probably going to affect other organisms, all the way up to humans," he said. "It's kind of a wake-up call."

The St. Louis Zoo is establishing a captive breeding program, which Ettling said now has four adults and a number of juveniles.