Transcript for the Piece Audio version of Zoo Crafts Love Nest To Save Ozark's Salamanders
HOST IN: They're flat, they're slimy, and they hide under rocks on river bottoms. At up to 2 feet in length, the Ozark hellbender is one of the world's largest salamanders.
And they're disappearing. There are fewer than 600 left in the rivers of southern Missouri and northern Arkansas.
Scientists have been making a huge effort to get them to breed in captivity. Now, as St. Louis Public Radio's Veronique LaCapra [vair-uh-NEEK la-CAP-rah] reports, it looks like 2012 could be the year of new hope for hellbenders.
CUT 1 MUSIC: “I’m in the mood for love” (Music by Jimmy McHugh, lyrics by Dorothy Fields. Sung by Dean Martin). [IN FULL]
“I’m in the mood for love...” [Music FADE UNDER during piano transition]
LACAPRA: It’s kind of a honeymoon resort for giant salamanders.
CUT 1 MUSIC: “I’m in the mood for love” [UP FULL]
“...simply because you’re near me...” [Music slowly FADE OUT as CUT 2 AMBI of flowing water FADES IN]
LACAPRA: But instead of romantic music and champagne to get the zoo’s hellbenders “in the mood,” Jeff Ettling and his staff at the St. Louis Zoo have given them chilly, rocky-bottom streams.
CUT 2 AMBI of flowing water [BRING UP FULL in the clear for 1.5 seconds, then UNDER and HOLD LOW]
CUT 3 JEFF ETTLING (0:09)
“What we’re looking at is two 40-foot long raceways or simulated streams that we’ve constructed over the last two-and-a-half to three years.”
LACAPRA: They also built a mini water treatment plant. It controls the streams’ water temperature and chemistry to mimic the hellbenders’ cool, spring-fed Ozark rivers...
CUT 2 AMBI of flowing water FADE OUT as CUT 4 AMBI of outdoors FADES IN
LACAPRA: ...minus any distracting predators or pollution.
CUT 5 JEFF ETTLING (0:07)
“You’ll notice that if you kind of look through the screen, you can see here there’s an artificial nest box right here in front of us...”
LACAPRA: Buried in the gravel stream bed are concrete boxes with a narrow entrance tunnel at one end. They may not sound very comfy, but to a male hellbender, they’re the perfect man cave – just what he needs to hunker down, fertilize and guard his stash of eggs. [AMBI of outdoors FADE OUT]
CUT 1 MUSIC: “I’m in the mood for love” [UP FULL]
“...I’m in the mood for love.” [Music FADE OUT]
LACAPRA: But a hellbender doesn’t exactly fit the image of a romantic Casanova.
CUT 6 JEFF BRIGGLER (0:09)
“It’s got these large wrinkles of skin on the side of its body. And it has a large flat head - it looks almost like a pancake - and little tiny beady eyes.”
LACAPRA: Jeff Briggler is the state herpetologist for the Missouri Department of Conservation.
CUT 7 JEFF BRIGGLER (0:06)
“I have to say, alot of people think they’re not the prettiest animal in the world, but I’ve grown very fond of them.”
CUT 4 AMBI of outdoors [FADE IN]
LACAPRA: Zookeeper Chawna Schuette [SHAW-nah SHOO-tee] loves them too – and thinks they’ve gotten a bad rap.
CUT 8 CHAWNA SCHUETTE (0:07)
“They have been called things like “snot otters” and “lasagna sides” because they’re slimy and they’ve got frilly little sides on them.”
LACAPRA: Schuette has been helping to try to breed hellbenders at the zoo – because wild hellbenders are in trouble [AMBI of outdoors FADE OUT]. Development has destroyed a lot of their Ozark habitat. Hundreds have been collected for the illegal pet trade. Others have been killed off by pollution and disease.
All these problems have made hellbender populations plummet. But even more alarming, says the Missouri Department of Conservation’s Jeff Briggler, is that young hellbenders have disappeared.
CUT 9 JEFF BRIGGLER (0:06)
“All we’re seeing is these large adults, and once these die off there’s not going to be any animals behind them.”
LACAPRA: Briggler says scientists realized if they didn’t do something, Ozark hellbenders would soon go extinct. He and others started collecting fertilized eggs to raise them in captivity.
CUT 4 AMBI of outdoors [FADE IN and OUT as needed under all subsequent narration at the zoo, to blend with Ettling and Schuette]
LACAPRA: And at the St. Louis Zoo, the hellbender breeding program kicked into high gear.
At first, things didn’t go so well.
CUT 10 JEFF ETTLING (0:11)
“We’ve had females lay eggs, indoors, but the males were not fertilizing the eggs and when we looked at samples of sperm they looked like they were malformed and we just thought we have other problems…”
LACAPRA: Ettling says that’s when they built the outdoor raceways with their high-tech water treatment system.
This September, sixteen Ozark hellbenders moved in.
No one expected them to breed right away.
Then, one chilly October morning, zookeeper Chawna Schuette [SHAW-nah SHOO-tee] put on her wetsuit and snorkeling gear to give the hellbenders their weekly check up.
CUT 11 CHAWNA SCHUETTE (0:10)
“And so I was just in the process of collecting animals, recording where they were at, getting weights on them, and all that sort of stuff, as well as checking just in the off-chance that there were eggs.”
LACAPRA: She says she opened one of the nest boxes, and…
CUT 12 CHAWNA SCHUETTE (0:07)
“I knew right away – I was like, “there’s fertile eggs in here!” And I almost choked on the water in my snorkel, ‘cuz I was so excited.”
LACAPRA: [AMBI of outdoors FADE OUT] Jeff Briggler was at the zoo that day, too.
CUT 13 JEFF BRIGGLER (0:06)
“We were, I mean we were just, I can’t even describe it...it excited us tremendously.”
LACAPRA: A total of one hundred and eighty-five Ozark hellbenders have now hatched at the St. Louis Zoo. Another one thousand-plus will arrive there this spring, raised from wild-fertilized eggs.
They’ll stay at the zoo for another six or seven years until they’re big enough to be released. The hope is they’ll keep the wild population going until researchers can figure out — and fix — whatever's going wrong in the environment. For NPR news, I'm Véronique LaCapra in St. Louis.Back