HELLBENDER SALAMANDER or SNOT OTTER - © Joel Sartore, National Geographic
Cryopreservation may be the last chance for the hellbender, aka the “snot otter.”
The hellbender’s decline spurred an international team to collect sperm from some captive salamanders in September 2009 for cryopreservation, a common zoo practice that freezes sperm without damaging its cell membranes.
Though several zoos have put a “great deal of effort” into breeding the amphibians in captivity, none has been particularly successful, McGinnity added. It’s unclear why they’re tough to breed.To make matters worse, hellbenders don’t seem to be breeding much in the wild, he said, possibly because human-made pollutants containing synthetic hormones are damaging the amphibians’ reproductive systems. Pollutants may also be harming the species’ eggs or larvae.
A sort of “insurance policy” against extinction, the sperm will enable scientists to manage hellbender breeding, according to team member Dalen Agnew, a reproductive pathologist at Michigan State University.
The 2.5-foot-long (0.7-meter-long) amphibians have declined by 80 to 90 percent in most of their traditional watersheds in recent decades, and healthy populations now haunt only isolated pockets of southern Appalachia (see map) and Pennsylvania, said Dale McGinnity, curator of reptiles at Nashville Zoo.
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