ONTD Political

Snot otters successfully bred in captivity

3:16 pm - 12/14/2012

Together with its cousins, the Japanese and Chinese Giant Salamanders, the hellbender is one of the largest amphibians in the world, and part of the only group of animals that can breathe mostly through folds of excess skin between their front and back legs. They’re a strange creature worth investing in, especially now that their numbers are declining to the point where certain populations are dying out altogether, so researchers have developed new assisted reproductive technologies to help keep these slimy salamanders around.

Hellbenders are endemic to North America and are split into two subspecies, the eastern hellbender (Cryptobranchus alleganiensis alleganiensis), which is found throughout the eastern states, and the Ozark hellbender (C. a. bishopi), which is restricted to the Ozark Mountains of northern Arkansas and southern Missouri. Both males and females grow to around the same size, stretching 24 – 40cm (9.4 – 16in) and weighing in at a rather hefty 1.5 – 2.5kg (3.3 – 5.5 lb). While many sources will tell you that we don’t really know where their common name ‘hellbender’ came from, its first use can be found in the 1812 book, A memoir concerning an animal of the class of reptilia, or amphibia, which is known, in the United-States, by the names of Alligator and Hell-bender, by American naturalist Benjamin Smith Barton. And let’s just say he was a man of his time…

“I must not omit to mention a very singular name by which this animal is known in some parts of the United States. By the negroes in the western parts of Virginia, on the waters of Holsten where it is common, the reptile is often called Hell-Bender, by reason of its slow, twisted motions when moving in the waters, which the slaves compare to the torturous pangs of the damned in hell. It is beneath the dignity of natural history to notice such vulgar names, when they serve to throw any light upon the habits or economy of an animal? And does not the moralist perceive, that there is something melancholy and distressing in the condition and reflections of those who impose such names?”

Barton, who was the first to describe the species, decided that the Native American name for the creature, ‘Tweeg’, was more fitting, but despite his best efforts, it did not stick nearly as effectively as hellbender has. Other nicknames it has acquired along the way are devil dog, ground puppy and snot otter.

Over the past couple of decades, the eastern hellbender has been experiencing drastic declines throughout its range, and researchers aren’t quite sure why. It could be the degradation of water sources that feed into their streams, new diseases or new pollutants being introduced to their streams, or a combination of all three, and its causing what’s known as a lack of recruitment, which means young hellbenders are growing up in declining populations, leaving fewer and older individuals for breeding each year. Plus dams and polluted rivers have already relegated them to the few healthy streams that are left, which has resulted in many isolated populations that could develop genetic defects because of inevitable inbreeding.

“Our hellbenders (Ozark and eastern), and the Japanese and Chinese Giant Salamanders are the only three species in the family Cryptobranchidae … and this family contains the largest amphibians in the world. All three species are imperiled and may disappear unless conservation programs are developed for them,” says Dale McGinnity, the ectotherm curator at the Nashville Zoo, and part of the team that has recently launched the first captive breeding program for eastern hellbenders.

Hellbenders are a difficult species to breed in captivity, and getting a hold on wild individuals to bring back to the lab is no walk in the park either. “Catching hellbenders is tough work because they live under large stones in rivers and streams,” says McGinnity. “We have to get several big guys with log peaveys (a log-moving tool) to tilt the rocks up, so that one of us can snorkel underneath to see if hellbenders are present.” He’s hoping a recent collaboration with geneticist Michael Freake from Lee University in Tennessee will result in a new technique that can detect hellbender DNA in a water sample to quickly determine if there are hellbenders lurking in a particular stream.

It’s taken a team at St Louis Zoo in Missouri many years to be the first to successfully breed Ozark hellbenders in captivity, which they did last year by fertilisiling eggs with sperm collected from males kept in artificial stream systems. “The natural breeding at St Louis is great, and will produce many animals for release in the future, but the genetic variability of these offspring is limited,” says McGinnity.

Working instead with the eastern hellbender subspecies, McGinnity’s team at Nashville Zoo are developing new reproductive technologies to breed them in a laboratory setting, which, when perfected, will hopefully produce large numbers of genetically diverse offspring for reintroduction into the wild.

The Nashville Zoo’s project launched about five years ago, with three male hellbenders and one female from a healthy wild population. It became an international collaboration, including Australian cryobiologist Robert Browne from the Zoological Society of Antwerp, who is an expert in amphibian reproductive technologies, and together they came up with painless techniques for collecting and cryopreserving sperm from captive and wild hellbenders to build up a large, cryopreserved gene bank.

Over the past couple of years, the team has also been using a new hormone injection called Amphiplex – recently developed for assisted reproduction in frogs – to stimulate egg and milt (seminal fluid) production in the captive hellbenders. “At the Zoo, we had been doing a long-term ultrasound study on the reproductive organs of our hellbenders over the seasons. By using ultrasound to determine the exact right time to inject the Amphiplex, based on the development of the testes and follicles, we have been able to reliably collect both eggs from the female and strip milt from all the males over the last two years,” says McGinnity. “We then place the sperm on the eggs and test different variables to see which might work.” Last month they announced that they were finally able to produce two healthy hellbender babies using freshly collected sperm.

“We need to further develop fertilisation protocols and early egg incubation techniques to produce large numbers of offspring, but we feel confident that we will be able to do this in the near future,” says McGinnity. “We are not fully there yet, but our hopes for the project will be to produce genetically appropriate stock for reintroduction, and slow down the loss of genetic diversity in declining populations through gene banking.”

Head to Zooborns.com for more stories about new animal breeding programs, and you can hear more about the project here:

source: Scientific American
snot otter not quite as cute as furry otter. but definitely in "so ugly its cute" category
chaya 14th-Dec-2012 08:20 pm (UTC)
but definitely in "so ugly its cute" category

Agree to disagree

Edited at 2012-12-14 08:21 pm (UTC)
fenris_lorsrai 14th-Dec-2012 08:37 pm (UTC)


(looking for more cute. all the actual otter stuff was about hunting or them dying horribly :( )

Edited at 2012-12-14 08:38 pm (UTC)
theguindo 14th-Dec-2012 08:41 pm (UTC)
I just want to snuggle it forever
teacup_werewolf 14th-Dec-2012 08:44 pm (UTC)
snot otters>>>>>> Actual otters
chaya 14th-Dec-2012 08:45 pm (UTC)
stainedfeathers 15th-Dec-2012 04:47 am (UTC)
*Squeeeeee!!!* I wanna huuuuug him! (I love all critters. I had a pet giant black african millipede at one point. My idea of "cute" is strange haha I think my peacock spiny eel is as adorable as is the Snot otter. My mother disagrees... )
fenris_lorsrai 15th-Dec-2012 05:04 am (UTC)
I had a giant hissing cockroach when I was a kid. Mom did not realize quite how "giant" it would actually end up...
kitanabychoice 14th-Dec-2012 09:03 pm (UTC)
hahah that cat, so unhappy all the time
keeperofthekeys 14th-Dec-2012 09:39 pm (UTC)
True story, I had a dream I got to meet Tardar Sauce. I was so happy.

Edited at 2012-12-14 09:39 pm (UTC)
hello_ilu 14th-Dec-2012 08:22 pm (UTC)
hey, tennessee is actually doing something not-shitty for once

minaloush 14th-Dec-2012 08:43 pm (UTC)
Truth. It is sad to be here sometimes.
castalianspring 14th-Dec-2012 09:04 pm (UTC)
Yay, I'm glad they finally succeeded! Hellbenders are freaking awesome.

He’s hoping a recent collaboration with geneticist Michael Freake from Lee University in Tennessee

Heh, that was my professor once-upon-a-time at that uni. Can't believe he's still there after all these years. We always had a good chuckle over having class with Dr Freake.
skellington1 14th-Dec-2012 10:28 pm (UTC)
Usually I think it'd be neater if we'd kept existing native names, but in this case I have to admit I'm going to alleviate a gloomy day by repeating 'snot otter' to myself ad infinitum.
blackjedii 14th-Dec-2012 11:04 pm (UTC)
That snot funny
blackjedii 14th-Dec-2012 11:04 pm (UTC)
I mean I nose someone might enjoy it but
blackjedii 14th-Dec-2012 11:05 pm (UTC)
The tone of the article is a little cold
blackjedii 14th-Dec-2012 11:06 pm (UTC)
In fact, the whole thing is just draining
paksenarrion2 15th-Dec-2012 02:37 am (UTC)
theloudcafe 15th-Dec-2012 09:29 am (UTC)
It's otterly ridiculous, really.
seasight 15th-Dec-2012 12:55 am (UTC)
thremma 15th-Dec-2012 01:22 am (UTC)
This is marvelous.
thenakedcat 15th-Dec-2012 06:48 am (UTC)
AWESOME. Love the Ode to Joy, love this crazy musical flash mob.
violet_dragon 15th-Dec-2012 01:54 am (UTC)
So....a snotter?
lizzy_someone 15th-Dec-2012 08:26 am (UTC)
Cool animal, sloppy reporting: "Native American name" makes about as much sense as "Asian name" or "European name." There are literally hundreds of Native American languages, and they have names! Use them!
theloudcafe 15th-Dec-2012 09:27 am (UTC)
Not gonna lie, the name "hellbenders" makes me think of Avatar.
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