EVANSVILLE, Ind (WEHT) Mesker Park Zoo & Botanic Garden made history on October 7, with the discovery of 68 fertile eastern hellbender eggs in an artificial breeding stream. This marks the first time that eastern hellbenders have bred in captivity and signifies a high point in the effort to restore this endangered species to its native environment.

“It was very, very exciting,” assistant curator Leigh Ramon said about the discovery. “I think everybody realizes how monumental this is and kind of a game changer, hopefully. Being able to breed them in captivity will allow us to get larger numbers back out into the wild. I think it is a really big deal that we created something that can contribute back to the population and keep it from disappearing.”

For animal curator Susan Lindsey, the find brought both excitement and anxiety as the group approached an unknown future.

“There was great excitement, but also trepidation about the huge responsibility we had there,” Lindsey said. “I was on pins and needles for the two weeks about if things would go well, making sure [the father] didn’t eat the eggs and that he was still protecting them.”

The eggs are expected to hatch into larvae in approximately 72 days. The larvae will be about two inches long and will retain their yolk sacks for several months. They will develop legs and lose their external gills by age two. The eastern hellbender is a large, fully aquatic salamander, nicknamed the snot otter, water dog, devil dog, Allegheny alligator and water eel among other things. The largest salamanders in North America, they can measure up to two feet long and can live to be more than 30 years old.

Eastern hellbenders live in shallow, fast-flowing, cool, rocky rivers and streams across the United States from New York to Georgia and as far west as Missouri and Arkansas.

They breathe through capillaries near the surface of their skin, absorbing oxygen directly from the water.  This requires high quality streams and the species has struggled to survive after decades of declining water quality and habitat degradation.

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(This story was originally published on October 26, 2020)