Meet the Hellbender, the Giant American Salamander That's Going Extinct


Photo: US Fish and Wildlife

Gigantic, slimy 2-ft salamanders do not typically receive top billing at charity conservation fundraisers or in WWF newsletters. Yet adorable panda bears and iconic tigers aren't the only ones facing numbered days about now. Uglier species have fallen on hard times too: Species like the Ozarks Hellbender, one of the largest salamanders in the world. There are only 590 of the creatures, which only inhabit rivers and streams in Arkansas and Missouri, left in the wild. And they're almost all infected with an amphibian-killing fungus that's decimating salamanders and frogs around the world. Due to the grave threat to their survival, the Hellbenders have just received federal protection as an endangered species. Here's the Fish and Wildlife Service:

At this point in time, numbers of hellbenders, even in areas that recently were thought to have healthy, stable populations, have plummeted. Particularly disconcerting, most populations have only older, large individuals. The lack of juveniles indicates that there has been little to no reproduction for several years.


Photo: BrianGratwickle via Flickr
The story of the Ozark hellbender's decline is an all too familiar one - increased siltation, water quality degradation, and increased impoundments. To add insult to injury, a highly infectious disease caused by Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis has been found in the Missouri populations. This "chytrid fungus" is proving fatal to an ever-increasing number of amphibians throughout the world ... [test] results showed that the chytrid fungus was present in all remaining populations of the Ozark hellbender in Missouri. Researchers view chytrid as one of the most, if not the most, challenging threat to the survival of this subspecies whose population size is estimated to be, at most, 590 individuals.


US Fish & Wildlife

The species certainly isn't conventionally beautiful, but it's pretty stunning. And its decline is a depressing reminder that we're in the midst of worldwide biodiversity loss the likes of which we humanfolk have never seen -- and amphibians are being hit hardest. It should also be a reminder that there are some amazing species in our own backyard -- how many of you knew about the Ozark Hellbender already? -- that are worth expending some serious effort to preserve.

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