Some people would call them ugly, and there would be no way to refute that because beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Others might say they’re scary and no one could argue because fear is personal. And some even claim they’re dangerous. But that claim is different. It’s dead wrong.
Most people though have never even seen one, don’t know they exist, which is an odd thing to note about an official state symbol. Well, it’s almost a state symbol. On Tuesday of this week, the state House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly “Yes” on Senate Bill 9. The Senate had already passed the measure so, only Governor Wolf’s signature is needed to officially designate the hellbender, North America’s largest salamander, as Pennsylvania’s official state amphibian.
It’s a good candidate because the hellbender lives—or once lived—throughout all but the eastern third of the state. Hellbenders are known to inhabit our area. They live in streams, and only those streams with cold clean water—much like wild trout. They’ve been found in most of the larger streams on Laurel Ridge and even in the upper tributaries of Wheeling Creek in Greene County. Surprisingly, there are no official records of the species in Fayette County streams but their known range surrounds Fayette, so they must be here, somewhere, or once were.
Hellbenders are, admittedly, somewhat bizarre in appearance. The larger females can approach two feet in length and both sexes are covered by smooth dark skin that gathers in flabby folds along the sides and under the chin. The head is as broad and flat, and the mouth is proportionally huge. Four stubby legs, also enveloped in folds of loose skin, poke out from the sides. The flabby skin is vital. Hellbenders live their entire lives underwater, but they have no gills. These big salamanders “breathe” through their skin, which explains why they prefer cold streams, which hold more dissolved oxygen than warm, sluggish waters. The skin-folds increase surface area, allowing them to absorb more oxygen from the water.
Hellbenders are most active at night, when they prowl the stream bottom in search of crayfish, their favorite food. They will sometimes eat other things, though, which explains why I remember other anglers catching them on big juicy nightcrawlers while fishing for trout on Laurel Hill Creek, many years ago. This was early in the trout season, when the water is cold, so the trout were down deep and inactive. So, fishermen would bait up with a big nightcrawler and cinch a couple of sinkers on their line and let it drift along the bottom of Laurel Hill’s deep holes. Sometimes that bait would drift within reach of a hellbender lurking under a big flat rock—their favored refuge sites. You can’t blame a big salamander for gulping a juicy worm that tumbles within reach.
Those accidental hellbender captures always incited a streamside ruckus. First, the “lucky” angler couldn’t believe the fight of this huge “trout” he’d hooked. When he dragged the big, sprawling, crawling amphibian onto the bank, you could just bet he’d exclaim, “Those things are poisonous,” and the aftermath was never pretty. It was a chance for that angler to be a hero and rid the world of a misunderstood threat, and those heroes would never heed the objections of a kid who’d read about hellbenders and knew they were harmless.
Speaking of kids who know about the hellbender, the story of how the species reached the threshold of becoming an official symbol of the Keystone State is an inspiring one.
Over two years ago, high school students active in the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s Student Leadership Council began studying the hellbender and spreading the word about its importance to the Chesapeake Bay—which is hundreds of miles downstream from its highland haunts. The students reasoned that if headwaters and tributaries of the Susquehanna River, which contributes half of all the Chesapeake’s fresh water, could support hellbenders, then the downstream bay would be healthier.
They wrote the language for the original Senate bill designating its official status and took their concept to Harrisburg and knocked on doors in the Capitol. Senator Gene Yaw of Lycoming County took up their cause and sponsored legislation. Now, those students’ long effort to call attention to this “canary in the mine” of clean water is nearly complete.
“The passing of this bill is sure to allow hellbenders to breathe easier in the near future and give them a better chance of survival - not to mention a better chance for a clean water legacy in Pennsylvania,” said Emma Stone, President of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s (CBF) Student Leadership Council (SLC) in Pennsylvania. “My fellow student leaders and I thank our representatives for their support of the hellbender bill. We are one step closer to cleaner water because of it.”
Ben Moyer is a member of the Pennsylvania Outdoor Writers Association and the Outdoor Writers Association of America.