HARRISBURG (February 6, 2019) – The Eastern hellbender took an important step, or should we say “slither,” to becoming Pennsylvania’s official amphibian this week when the Pennsylvania Senate voted overwhelmingly in favor of the measure.
The hellbender, member of the Giant Salamander family is an aquatic and nocturnal creature that can grow up to two feet long and weigh up to five pounds, making it the largest amphibian in North America. Its slimy appearance has inspired a range of vivid nicknames, including mud devil, snot otter, and Allegheny alligator, among others.
However, hellbenders are also known as natural barometers or indicators of water quality because they can only survive in clean environments. They live in cold, clear, swift-running water and prefer shallow, rocky stream beds.
Dinniman, who serves on the Senate Environmental Resources and Energy Committee, said hellbenders are unique creatures that represent the best in Pennsylvania’s values of protecting our waterways and our environment.
“Where you see a hellbender, you know that water is clean,” Dinniman said. “These creatures serve as reminders of our Constitutional right to ‘clean air, pure water, and to the preservation of the natural, scenic, historic and esthetic values of the environment.’ And it’s our duty to ensure that these reminders remain for generations to come.”
Senate Bill 9, introduced by state Senator Gene Yaw, designating the Eastern hellbender (Cryptobranchus alleganiensis alleganiensis) as the official amphibian of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania passed the Senate by a vote of 48 to 1 on Monday. In January, the bill, which aims to raise awareness of the hellbender’s dwindling numbers, unanimously passed the Senate State Government Committee.
According to the Pennsylvania Land Trust Association, the presence of streamside trees or forested buffers stands out among factors that enable hellbenders to survive. A lack of forested buffers along Pennsylvania waterways allows warm, polluted runoff to enter rivers and streams and silt and sedimentation to build up in streambeds. As a result, their habitat has been degraded and hellbender numbers were decimated in streams where they were plentiful as recently as 1990.
Experts also say the hellbender faces many other threats in Pennsylvania including habitat loss and degradation from dams, poor agricultural practices, heavy logging, and acid mine drainage effects. Although not listed as a federally endangered species, some states give them protected status. Pennsylvania does not and the creature remains a species of concern due to its declining population.
While Chester County is home to about 20 Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection-designated high-quality and exceptional value streams and waterways, hellbenders are not prevalent in our region.
According to the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission, the elusive critters are currently found in the Commonwealth’s Susquehanna and Ohio River watersheds – not in the Delaware River drainage. Outside of Pennsylvania, its range extends south-westward to southern Illinois, continuing to the northern edges of Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia.
Dinniman, who has consistently supported efforts to protect local waterways, including leading opposition against Act 162 of 2014 to roll back required buffer zones for new developments along streams, said the hellbender deserves to be the state amphibian.
“Hellbenders have high standards when it comes to clean water and so should we,” he said. “Let’s not let them go the way of the canary in the coal mine.”
Senate Bill 9 is currently before the House State Government Committee. If it passes, the Eastern hellbender will join other official state animals like the Ruffled Grouse (state bird), Great Dane (state dog), Brook Trout (state fish) and White-Tailed Deer (state animal).
The Senate passed an Eastern hellbender bill last year, but it died in the House, where it encountered a competing bill promoting the Wehrle’s salamander as the state amphibian.
The Wehrle’s bill has not been reintroduced in the House this session. Wehrle’s salamander was said to be discovered by and named after a late naturalist, R.W. Wehrle, in Indiana, Pennsylvania.