The Eastern hellbender — an odd critter that has inspired vivid nicknames, such as snot otter, devil dog and mud devil — was poised for a promotion in an effort led by a state senator on Wednesday, when an overwhelming majority of the Senate voted in favor of its becoming the state’s Official Amphibian.
But not so fast.
Separately, House Republican leader Dave Reed circulated a memo Thursday seeking support for forthcoming legislation to make Wehrle’s salamander the Official Amphibian.
First, let’s consider the Eastern hellbender. The Senate bill was approved by 47-2, and as a potential first Official Amphibian, it is not pushing any other vertebrates off a lofty pedestal as it quite literally comes out from under a rock.
The unique and curiously likable creature is the largest North American salamander. It can grow up to 29 inches and weigh up to five pounds. Hellbenders are solitary, nocturnal, and elusive. Their relatively flat heads and bodies allow them to hide under rocks. They prefer shallow, clear, and fast streams, and need cold, clean water to survive.
Researchers from Lycoming College in Williamsport, Pa., say hellbenders have lived in rivers and streams throughout much of Pennsylvania, except for the Delaware River watershed. The species has lasted through ice ages but is now in decline. Researchers say the population is shrinking because of pollution and warmer water. In Pennsylvania, mine drainage and sedimentation also contribute to the decline.
The Senate bill was sponsored by Sen. Gene Yaw, a Republican from Williamsport who represents parts of five counties.
“The Eastern hellbender is considered an indicator species due to its sensitivity to poor water quality and pollution,” the bill states. “Pennsylvania has had a history of poor water quality due to pollution and other elements.”
Hellbenders are not protected under the federal Endangered Species Act. Though some states give them protected status, Pennsylvania does not. But the state says it is of “special concern” because of poor water quality in some areas.
Pennsylvania has 1,239 square miles of rivers and streams. At one time, according to state officials, the hellbender was found in waterways in just about every western county. Now, it’s found in half.
The Chesapeake Bay Foundation has a hellbender campaign to bring awareness to its plight. The campaign is the brainchild of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s Student Leadership Council. The PaEnvironmentDigest reported that students studied the hellbender extensively, wrote the first draft of Senate Bill 658, and are working for its passage.
Yaw is a member of the Chesapeake Bay Commission, a legislative body with representatives from Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia. It is separate from the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.
“Because the Eastern hellbender exemplifies what is good about Pennsylvania’s waterways, it is the perfect selection to become the official state amphibian,” Yaw said. “It is an excellent natural indicator of water quality, so, in effect, if you have hellbenders in your water the water quality most likely is very good.”
But after Yaw’s bill was approved, Reed issued his memo, suggesting there might be a fight.
His memo says Wehrle’s salamander was discovered by and named after a late naturalist, R.W. Wehrle, in Reed’s hometown of Indiana, according to an Associated Press report.
Researchers say Wehrle’s salamander is common. It is a few inches in length and found in upland forests across the Eastern United States.
The Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission describes Wehrle’s salamander a “a bluish gray to dark brown or almost black. Irregular spots, often looking more like dash marks, appear on the sides.”
It continues: “They are white or bluish white in most cases, but sometimes can appear yellow. The back occasionally is marked with very small flecks of a lighter color. The belly and the underside of the tail are evenly tinted in gray.”