Cryopreserved sperm could save giant "snot otter" salamanders from extinction

The 2.5-foot-long hellbender (a.k.a. "the snot otter" a.k.a. "the devil dog" a.k.a. North America's largest salamander) once populated the waterways all over the northeastern United States. Now, its population has declined such that scientists are cryopreserving its spiral-shaped sperm.

The hellbender, which has changed little since the days of the dinosaur, can now be found in remote pockets of Appalachia and Pennsylvania. Researchers aren't sure why the hellbender's population has dwindled, but according to the Nashville Zoo's reptile curator Dale McGinnity, pesticide runoff and other pollutants are likely culprits.


The hellbender lives longer than 30 years, and those left in the wild tend to be older specimens. As a result, McGinnity and researchers from the Antwerp Zoo and Michigan State University have been collecting, cryopreserving, and successfully resurrecting hellbender sperm. The amphibian's laid-back disposition makes it a good candidate for sperm banking:

This docile nature certainly helps scientists collect salamander sperm, which is "milked" out of a hellbender by rubbing it between the front legs and tail, said Nashville Zoo's McGinnity.

[Michigan State reproductive pathologist Dalen] Agnew also found that the hellbender sperm cell-like those of other amphibian species-boasts a ribbon of tissue encircling the tail. Magnified 40 times, it "almost looks like a corkscrew spinning," Agnew said.


Here's the Hellbender in motion. Big, long-lived, and easy-going. If this species goes extinct, we will have lost the Fonz of the herpetological world.

[Via National Geographic. Photo by Joel Sartore. Film by Jeff Humphries. Thanks to Merilyn Terrell at Intelligent Travel for the heads up!]


Share This Story