The race is on to save the Ozark Hellbender, the world's most awesomely-named animal

There are animals with badass names, and then there's the Ozark Hellbender. This salamander-like creature might sound like a reject from a particularly gritty and/or rural episode of Avatar: The Last Airbender, but it's actually a critically endangered species.

The St. Louis Zoo and the Missouri Department of Conservation have worked for over a decade to set up the first captive breeding program for the species, which is found throughout the Ozarks of Missouri and Arkansas. Not that long ago, there were as many as 8,000 hellbenders found throughout the region, but now that number has dwindled down to just 600, earning it a place on the federal endangered species list as of this October.

The Ozark hellbender, which has the equally awesome nicknames of "snot otter" and "old lasagna sides", is one of the largest salamanders in all North America, capable of reaching up to two feet in length. Its body is slippery and flattened, allowing it to zip through the water and squeeze under rocks on the bottoms of streams.

The animal is worth saving beyond its unusual appearance and kickass name. It's also like the river version of the famous canary in a coal mine, meaning its own health can serve as a useful barometer for the safety of its ecosystem, including any potential risks for humans. The St. Louis Zoo's Jeff Ettling explains:

"Capillaries near the surface of the hellbender's skin absorb oxygen directly from the water — as well as hormones, heavy metals and pesticides. If there is something in the water that is causing the hellbender population to decline, it can also be affecting the citizens who call the area home."

The captive breeding program has brought together two wild-born hellbenders, and they've already produced 63 baby hellbenders who will soon be released into their natural habitat. The scientists estimate they have about 15 to 20 years to reverse this decline and avoid extinction.

Via the St. Louis Zoo.