Hellbent for glory ... or extinction in Pa. waters
When it comes to the plants and animals that represent the great state of Pennsylvania, a number of “official” categories designate the commonwealth’s flora and fauna ambassadors. A quick review: State flower? Mountain Laurel. State tree? Hemlock. State animal? Whitetail deer. State Game bird? Ruffed grouse. State fish? Brook trout. State insect? Firefly. State dog? Great Dane. State beautification and conservation plant? Penngift crownvetch. We even have an official state fossil - trilobite.
I guess that, technically speaking, the whitetail deer should have been anointed the state mammal, since the deer, grouse, trout, firefly, and Great Dane are all broadly classified as animals (and, of course, the Great Dane also happens to be a mammal).
But in any case, if you’ve been paying attention, you’ll noticed a couple of glaring omissions. At present, there is no official reptile or amphibian representing the Keystone State (even though quite a few other states have both). With reptiles, for example, West Virginia has the timber rattlesnake and Maryland has the diamondback terrapin. With amphibians, New York has the wood frog and Ohio has the spotted salamander. Pennsylvania clearly has some catching up to do.
And while there may be no potential official reptile on the horizon, a very unique amphibious candidate has now been nominated: the Eastern hellbender salamander. This critter’s grab for glory comes courtesy of State Senator Gene Yaw’s (R-23rd) recently introduced Senate Bill 658 which would designate the Eastern hellbender as Pennsylvania’s official state amphibian. Yaw’s bill traces its inception to the efforts of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s (CBF) Student Leadership Council (SLC). The students have studied the hellbender extensively, wrote the first draft of Senate Bill 658, and are working for its passage.
Although most folks would agree that this slimy, spongy, dark olive drab brownish creature will never win any beauty contests (one popular nickname is “snot otter”), the hellbender’s claim to fame is that it’s the largest aquatic salamander in the United States. Although the average size is around 12 to 15 inches, it can grow to almost 30 inches in length. However, the CBF’s campaign to establish this giant salamander as the official state amphibian has nothing to do with this creature’s size or negative cuteness quotient; instead the bill aims to raise environmental awareness. The hellbender is considered an indicator species, and when its numbers decline it’s a sure sign of environmental and habitat degradation.
“It’s about all species that rely on clean water, which essentially encompasses all wildlife in Pennsylvania, including us,” said SLC President Anna Pauletta, a senior at Cumberland Valley High School in summing up the hellbender campaign. “It’s being able to speak up for something that doesn’t necessarily have a voice and making impact on their survivorship through legislation.”
“Long-term we are also looking to raise awareness for clean water in general, but within the legislative process as well, because it’s an issue that is commonly overlooked,” Pauletta added.
“Hellbenders are a natural barometer of water quality and they live where the water is clean,” Senator Yaw said, recalling his days as a youngster catching hellbenders in the local creek. “If they are surviving in the streams in this area, that is a good sign for the water quality. Here is nature’s own testing kit for good water quality.”
Not so long ago hellbenders roamed the streams of Chester, Montgomery, and Berks Counties and throughout the southeastern regions of the state. But today much of what remains of a depleted hellbender population in Pennsylvania has retreated to more pristine habitats, still surviving in waters within Senator Yaw’s district that includes Bradford, Lycoming, Sullivan, part of Susquehanna and Union counties.
Hellbenders thrive where there is cold, clear, swift-running water. They prefer rocky streambeds. Their sponge-like bodies allow them to squeeze into crevices which they use for protection and for nesting. The slimy salamanders feed at night, primarily on crayfish. Folds of wrinkled skin provide a large surface through which they draw most of their oxygen.
One key problem impacting the hellbender is the lack of forested buffers along Commonwealth waterways. This lack of buffers allows waters to warm, polluted runoff to enter rivers and streams, and silt to build up in streambeds. As a result, habitat has been degraded and hellbender numbers have been decimated in streams where they once were plentiful as recently as 1990. The plight of the hellbender and its shrinking habitat raises the specter of the canary in the coal mine. In Pennsylvania, roughly 19,000 miles of rivers and streams are fouled by pollution. Improving Pennsylvania water quality is of critical concern to the folks at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation since the health of the Bay is ultimately impacted by pollutants that flow downstream from the Susquehanna River and her tributaries.
The presence of streamside trees or forested buffers stands out among factors that enable hellbenders to survive. “Forested buffers are one of the most costeffective practices available for not only keeping pollutants out of the stream, but also for providing hellbenders cool, clean water and habitat to live,” said CBF’s Pennsylvania Executive Director Harry Campbell. “Science tells us no other practice does so much for so many.”
The senator and the students believe recognizing the Eastern hellbender as the state amphibian can encourage more Pennsylvanians to protect it and its environment. “The idea of promoting the name in and of itself is unique,” Senator Yaw said. “I think there are a lot of people in the state that have never heard of this particular creature.” The senator is chairman of the Senate Environmental Resources and Energy Committee and a member of the Chesapeake Bay Commission.
The student effort on behalf of the hellbender began last summer. CBF student leaders have installed hellbender nesting boxes in the upper Susquehanna and sampled streams for the presence of hellbender DNA. They gathered support for the hellbender designation from conservation groups and visited the State University of New York (SUNY) Lab in Buffalo, N.Y. to learn about DNA testing. They also went to the Buffalo Zoo to see hellbenders up close and personal.
The senator notes that the students will benefit in the process as well. “These are a bunch of bright kids,” Senator Yaw said. “They’ve got some good ideas. They studied this. We will do it. It showed them that they have a voice and it does make a difference.”
The students are collaborating with Dr. Peter Petokas, noted research associate at the Clean Water Institute at Lycoming College in Williamsport. Dr. Petokas has studied hellbenders for more than ten years and has captured and microchipped over 3,000 of them.
While a subspecies of the hellbender, the Ozark hellbender, has been listed as an endangered species, the Eastern hellbender itself has not, but is still classified as a “Federal Species of Concern.” In Pennsylvania all fish, reptiles, and amphibians come under the jurisdiction of the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission (PF&BC). The PF&BC currently lists the green salamander as threatened and the Eastern mud salamander and the blue-spotted salamander as endangered. As with the hellbender, there is no open season on these species.
If Senate Bill 658 becomes law, this big ugly salamander can bask in the glory of becoming Pennsylvania’s official state amphibian. But threatened by its shrinking habitat range and without help and more clean water, the Eastern hellbender may find itself on the fast track to extinction.
CBF’s Student Leadership Program is open to all high school students and is designed to give them a voice and an active role in clean water efforts in Pennsylvania. For more information about the campaign for the Eastern hellbender, visit www.cbf.org/hellbender online.
Tom Tatum is an outdoors columnist for Digital First Media.
The Eastern Hellbender salamander could become the state’s official state amphibian.