Slimy salamander 'Snot Otter' aims to wow Bronx Zoo crowds

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.

Animals at the Bronx Zoo
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Animals at the Bronx Zoo

An Eastern Hellbender salamander swims in its enclosure at the Bronx Zoo in New York, U.S., April 18, 2017. Picture taken April 18, 2017.

(Julie Larsen Maher/Handout via Reuters)

NEW YORK, NY - JANUARY 25: Amur tiger seen at the Bronx Zoo on January 25, 2016 in New York City. (Photo by James Devaney/WireImage)
NEW YORK, NY - JANUARY 25: Seal seen at the Bronx Zoo on January 25, 2016 in New York City. (Photo by James Devaney/WireImage)
NEW YORK, NY - JANUARY 25: Peacock seen at the Bronx Zoo on January 25, 2016 in New York City. (Photo by James Devaney/WireImage)
NEW YORK, NY - DECEMBER 15: Red panda seen at Bronx Zoo on December 15, 2013 in the Bronx borough of New York City. (Photo by James Devaney/WireImage)
An emerald tree boa swallows ints meal at the reptile house in the Bronx Zoo. (Photo by Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images)
The winter is a special time to visit the Bronx Zoo. Many of the animals are more active and seem to prefer the cold weather, and the usual crowds are long gone. Often, when it is raining or snowing, it is possible to be one of only a handful of visitors to the large park that is the zoo. (Photo by Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - DECEMBER 15: Mallard ducks seen at Bronx Zoo on December 15, 2013 in the Bronx borough of New York City. (Photo by James Devaney/WireImage)
A female Baringo giraffe calf born this month at the Wildlife Conservation Society's Bronx Zoo stays close to her mother in the Carter Giraffe Building at the Bronx Zoo, in New York in this handout photo received by Reuters March 22, 2012. The calf will be making its debut in the zoo's African Plains in about one week. The calf was approximately 6 feet tall and over 100 pounds at birth. As an adult, she could eventually grow to 16 feet and weigh 2,600 pounds. REUTERS/Wildlife Conservation Society/Julie Larsen Maher/Handout (UNITED STATES - Tags: ANIMALS) FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS. THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. IT IS DISTRIBUTED, EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY REUTERS, AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS
Zeff, a 300 pound, 11 year old Amur tiger, moves in her new habitat, called Tiger Mountain, at the Bronx Zoo in New York, May 14, 2003. The three acre habitat holds eight tigers and brings zoo visitors face-to-face with the big cats, as they look through especially thick glass for their protection. Picture taken May 14, 2003. REUTERS/Chip East CME/HB
Head wildlife keeper Earl Piekarz prepares to feed a small flock of African ostriches at the Bronx Zoo in New York May 1. The feeding took place at a preview of the zoo's new "Big Birds" exhibit which will open May 3. The ostrich is the largest living bird in the world. USA
Baby gorillas twins make their public debut at the Bronx Zoo July 13. The male lowland gorilla twins, as yet unnamed, were born August 8, 1994 from a match made in Special Survival Plan between Pattyacke of New York and Timmy of Cleveland

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.

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)

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