With its huge, flat head and slimy skin, the Eastern hellbender won’t win any beauty contests. It’s picked up such unflattering nicknames as “snot otter” and “old lasagna sides.”
But because the rarely seen giant salamander can only live in the most pristine of streams, a small group of Pennsylvania high school students thinks Cryptobranchus alleganiensis alleganiensis should be named the official state amphibian, as a sort of clean water mascot. By calling attention to the existence — and decline —of hellbenders, the students hope to foster awareness in Pennsylvania of the need to restore the health of its rivers and streams.
“We want hellbenders to become a household name,” said River Sferlazza, 16, a member of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s Student Leadership Council in Pennsylvania. “If it’s the state amphibian, hellbenders will become harder for people to forget.”
The student leadership council is an experiential learning program for young advocates for clean water in the Bay watershed. It’s a small group of teens — sometimes five meet monthly, and seven attend a field trip. They are recruited through other foundation programs, and most live or go to school in the Harrisburg suburbs. Students learn about the Chesapeake from experts, who provide hands-on field experience in restoration science and policy formation.
In Pennsylvania, the hellbender became the focus for the council when a few members became fascinated with a model of the creature in the CBF’s Harrisburg office. The students were determined to learn more. They waded in cold streams in September to install concrete hellbender “houses,” met face-to-face with laboratory-raised hellbenders and even sampled their home streams for the presence of hellbender DNA.
The salamander is olive-gray, sometimes with rust splotches. Flat-bodied and flexible, they live, feed and nest under large flat rocks in mountain streams across a range from Arkansas to New York. It is North America’s largest salamander and can grow 2 feet long. When handled, they writhe and thrash, but are actually soft and harmless to humans. No one knows where they got their name, but one theory is that fisherman or early settlers said they looked like they came from hell and were hell-bent on getting back.
As the students learned about hellbenders, they wanted to do more to help protect them —and promote clean water in Pennsylvania.
“I did a little research and found that we didn’t have a state amphibian. Roughly 30 states do, and none of them have designated the hellbender,” said Lane Whigham, a CBF staffer who coordinates activities for the student group. “I suggested they write a bill. During the next monthly meeting, they had drafted legislation.”
Armed with knowledge gleaned from the field, and a draft bill, the group’s next field trip took them to the state capital complex in Harrisburg in March, where they met with Sen. Gene Yaw, R-Lycoming, who serves on the Chesapeake Bay Commission and is the chair of the Senate Environment and Energy Committee.
“I did agree to introduce a bill that a group of kids were so enthused about and made a lot of good arguments and gave good supporting background,” Yaw said. “I know there will be critics about this, but I think it’s good to have kids see government work.”
Yaw said that in a few months, he will introduce the student-drafted bill to designate the hellbender the official amphibian of Pennsylvania.
“I grew up in the country, in Lycoming County, and I remember seeing them in small streams,” he said.
“As a kid, they scared the devil out of you,” he added, laughing and suggesting that he may be the only lawmaker in Harrisburg who knows they exist. “I never thought about the benefits of them — these critters can be used as monitors of water quality in streams.”
Hellbenders are only found in clear, clean, fast-flowing streams. They breathe mostly through their skin — which makes them vulnerable to silty water. For these reasons, Eastern hellbenders are found in very few places, even though their range spans 14 states. (A subspecies, the Ozark hellbender, occupies two states.)
Pennsylvania, New York, Virginia and West Virginia list the Eastern hellbender as a species of special concern; Maryland classifies its population as endangered. The salamander is being considered for protection nationwide under the Endangered Species Act; the review is expected to be complete in 2018. Even if the animal gets listed as endangered or threatened, that doesn’t necessarily protect its habitat, in this case, clean water. Disease pressure, sedimentation and habitat destruction are some of the reasons scientists believe hellbenders’ numbers have declined.
Jeromy Applegate is a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the lead on trying to determine the status of the Eastern hellbender.
“The range has not changed since 2003,” he said, noting that the data collection is not nearly complete. “One of the struggles with hellbenders is they are difficult to find. In deep water, you would need to scuba, and not all field researchers scuba.”
USFWS researchers are looking at historical population data throughout hellbenders’ known range in 450 streams, 24 of which are in New York and Pennsylvania. Of those streams, the hellbender is found solely in the Susquehanna and Allegheny River drainages, Applegate said. “We do not think they are in the very lower Susquehanna in Maryland.”
It’s been hard to pin down Eastern hellbenders’ status because of their tendency to hide under rocks underwater and they are often confused with mud puppies, another salamander. But in recent years, survey techniques in the field have improved. Efforts also have sprung up to raise them in captivity.
Researchers can sample for environmental DNA (eDNA), checking streams for genetic traces of hellbenders in the water. While eDNA can detect the creatures, it can’t necessarily tell how many are there. What it can do, said Noelle Rayman-Metcalf, a Wildlife Service biologist in New York, is help to target where field researchers should focus their valuable time counting the creatures the old-fashioned way — by lifting rocks and looking under them.
New York’s Buffalo and Bronx zoos are part of a “head start” program raising hellbenders from eggs collected in the wild. The young beasts are studied, then tagged with tracking devices and released into the Susquehanna and Allegheny rivers when they are large enough to avoid predation by fish.
“My favorite experience was being able to touch and handle the hellbenders at the Buffalo zoo,” said Anna Pauletta, 18, another student council member. “It was an opportunity that not many in our generation…have. I didn’t realize that they were so big. Their heads are colossal.”
Peter Petokas, a researcher at Lycoming College, has had pretty good luck finding hellbenders by donning scuba gear and peering under big rocks in streams. He estimated that he’s handled about 3,000 of them over the last 11 years.
Petokas is studying how hellbender populations have changed over time in the upper Susquehanna River. He is also collecting hellbender eggs to send to the captive-rearing program at the Bronx Zoo.
The CBF student group contacted Petokas last fall, just in time to help him place “houses” for hellbenders in streams — large-concrete structures weighing more than 100 pounds. The boxes are outfitted with a lid that researchers can lift to check for the salamanders and collect their eggs.
Andrew Waldman, 14, recalls it took two people to lift the structures and a makeshift raft to transport them across the water.
“It was really cool to be working in the field, planting the nests with what is one of the biggest hellbender experts on the East Coast,” he said.
Only time and the political process will determine if the hellbender becomes Pennsylvania’s state amphibian. In the meantime, the student council is organizing events and designing hellbender T-shirts to promote the idea. Pennsylvania will be the only state that has the hellbender as a state amphibian if the bill passes. “The campaign is not just about the hellbender, Pauletta said, “It will hopefully help to raise awareness about every species that needs clean water.
“It’s a universal issue that is not owned by any political party. It’s something that affects everyone.”