Hellbender proposed as official state amphibian

HARRISBURG, Pa. (WHTM) — Chances are, you’ve never heard of the Eastern Hellbender. If you’ve actually seen one, you’re in rare company.

Now, a group familiar with the reclusive giant of the amphibian world is making a case to name the hellbender as Pennsylvania’s official state amphibian.

“It’s North America’s largest salamander. It can reach lengths of up to 29 inches, so approaching three feet long,” said Anna Pauletta, a senior at Cumberland Valley High School. “They live under flat rocks in cold, fast moving streams, which we have a lot of in Pennsylvania.”

As President of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s Student Leadership Council, Pauletta and other Pennsylvania students are working on initiatives to clean-up and protect the Chesapeake Bay Watershed. With its unique name and size, the hellbender has become the subject of a campaign to educate others about the importance of water quality. Researchers say the species was once widespread, but the population has been decimated by water pollution, including chemicals and sediment.

“Being an amphibian, they’re super sensitive to water quality,” said Pauletta. “They rely on water to breathe, and the hellbender actually absorbs the oxygen in the water through the folds in their skin. Hellbenders are indicators of clean water.”

As part of the effort, Pauletta and other students drafted the first version of a bill that would designate the species as the official state amphibian. Upon lobbying lawmakers, State Senator Gene Yaw (R-23rd) introduced Senate Bill 658, which is co-sponsored by State Senator Mike Regan (R-31). Yaw is chairman of the Senate Environmental Resources and Energy Committee.

“They are a natural barometer of water quality and they live where the water is clean,” said Yaw, who recalls spending days as a youngster catching hellbenders in a local creek within his home district which includes Bradford, Lycoming, Sullivan and parts of Susquehanna and Union Counties.

According to Chesapeake Bay Foundation, it is within that region where the bulk of the depleted hellbender population continues to thrive.

“If they are surviving in the streams in this area, that is a good sign,” added Yaw.

Pauletta envisions a a day when hellbenders are once again widespread across the Commonwealth, which would also mean successful efforts in water quality improvements.

“Every living creature needs clean water to survive, including humans,” adds Pauletta. “So its very, very important that we continue to promote and preserve the clean water that we have left in Pennsylvania, for not only the hellbender, but for all species that require it.”

Currently in committee, there is no word on when SB 658 could come up for a vote by the full senate.

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