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The disappearance of the eastern hellbender has been a bit of a mystery for biologists working to save them.

Two decades ago, scientists started to notice fewer of the giant salamanders in the state's rivers. Since then, fears have grown that the creatures could disappear.

"The numbers have been declining at an alarming rate," said Mark Kandel, regional wildlife manager for the state Department of Environmental Conservation. "We want to make sure there are hellbenders around, when and if we get to the point when we figure out what's causing their demise."

So a team that includes the DEC and Buffalo Zoo is working to give hundreds of the giant salamanders a head start in the wild.

In a lab that will open to public viewing today, the zoo is raising 540 hellbenders from eggs that were collected from a river in the Southern Tier, in hopes of releasing them back into area waterways when they're large enough to better survive. The effort aims to keep the hellbender -- currently listed by the state as a protected species of special concern -- off the endangered species list.

"The hellbender recovery team was formed to kind of get ahead of labeling the hellbender as endangered," said Penny Danielewicz, collections manager of reptiles and amphibians for the Buffalo Zoo. "We are working to see if we can use this head start project as a tool in hellbender conservation."

Biologists studying their decline have noticed a gap between eggs that are hatched in the wild and the number that grow to adulthood. They devised a program that involved collecting wild eggs and raised the offspring in the zoo past the point when they are most vulnerable to predators, Kandel said.

"We're not finding many of the younger, middle-aged hellbenders," Kandel said. "And there's any number of reasons why they may not be surviving through that middle part."

The hellbenders in the zoo are just over a year old and have grown to about 3 or 4 inches since they hatched in late 2009. They are scheduled to be released back to the wild in 2013.

"We have had a lot of fun watching them develop and grow because they're such a unique animal," Danielewicz said.

The nocturnal creatures, she said, can whip their bodies back and forth -- a characteristic that helped earn their name.

The zoo will give a presentation on the eastern hellbender during its "Warm Up With the Cold-Blooded" event from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday.

The eastern hellbender, which can grow longer than 2 feet, is the largest aquatic salamander in North America.


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