By Barbara Goldberg
NEW YORK (Reuters) - The Eastern Hellbender, a slimy giant salamander creepy enough to be nicknamed "Snot Otter" and "Old Lasagna Sides," is making its debut before animal lovers at the world-renowned Bronx Zoo.
The two-foot-long amphibian is North America's only giant salamander. After being kept behind closed doors at the zoo for years as part of a conservation effort, they are now making their first public appearance, said Kevin Torregrosa, zoo herpetologist, or amphibian and reptile specialist.
Found in freshwater rivers and streams from northern Georgia to upstate New York, hellbenders have flat heads and bodies, small eyes and sticky, wrinkly skin. They get little respect from age-old nicknames based on the fold of slippery reddish-brown skin that gives them the look of lasagna.
"Their appearance can be a bit comical," Torregrosa said on Wednesday.
But the seldom-seen hellbenders command admiration from conservationists who hail them as an aquatic version of a "canary in the coalmine," or early indicator of threats to an ecosystem. Their slimy skin is used to pull in oxygen to breath, and when they die it is a warning that pollution and human encroachment are damaging the environment, Torregrosa said.
"They are a very valuable indicator of the ecosystems in which they are found," Torregrosa said.
The creatures made their public debut over the weekend in a habitat inside the zoo's Reptile House. But their habit of hiding under rocks, their preferred location for laying hundreds of eggs, makes it so hard to glimpse them that it took a zoo photographer two days to get an image, a zoo spokesman said.
Listed as "near threatened" by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and as "a species of special concern" by New York State, young hellbenders have been raised for years by the zoo in a special bio-secure room.
Thirty-eight were tagged with identification chips and released into the Allegheny River Basin in 2013.
Eggs were then collected from the Susquehanna Watershed of New York and Pennsylvania the following year and, as a result, 103 hellbenders have been raised in the Bronx for future release into the wild, the zoo said in a press release.
Only two larger salamander species are known to exist: the Japanese and Chinese giant salamanders, both of which can grow up to six feet long.
(Reporting by Barbara Goldberg; Editing by Daniel Wallis and David Gregorio)