Pennsylvania Names Water-Lovin’ Salamander as State Amphibian

Ned S. Gilmore, collections manager of vertebrate zoology, shows a hellbender salamander in the collection at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia on March 23, 2012. A nocturnal salamander that can grow to be more than 2 feet long, the hellbender was recognized Tuesday by Pennsylvania lawmakers as the state amphibian. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon, File)

HARRISBURG, Pa. (CN) — Recognizing its importance as an indicator species for clean water, Pennsylvania lawmakers voted overwhelmingly Tuesday to designate a state amphibian: an enormous salamander called the Eastern hellbender.

After the 191-6 vote by the Pennsylvania House, Governor Tom Wolf’s office said that he plans to sign the bill into law. This bill passed through the state Senate in February.

“The hellbender is like the canary in the coal mine as far as the health of Pennsylvania’s waters,” B.J. Small, a spokesman for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said in a phone interview Wednesday. “It survives where there’s cool clean running water and we need to do a better job of keeping Pennsylvania’s waters healthy.”

“While we save and restore the hellbender, we’re hopefully working to save and protect cleaner waters in the Commonwealth,” he continued.

High school students on the foundation’s student leadership council, in collaboration with Lycoming College’s Clean Water Institute, have spent the last two years lobbying for the Eastern hellbender to take on the state title. As part of an extensive study, the students installed several nesting boxes for the salamander in streams across the state and even drafted the bill that Senator Gene Yaw, a Republican from Lycoming, ended up sponsoring. 

The hellbender, also known as the spotted water gecko, is considered North America’s largest salamander, commonly growing to 2 feet in length. Hellbenders have a penchant for fast-flowing and well-oxygenated streams, making their presence synonymous with good water quality.

In Pennsylvania, however, the population has been shrinking. 

“There’ve been fewer and fewer as time goes by,” Small said. 

Small’s group reports that the amphibians held a steady population in Pennsylvania as recently as 1990, but pollution and sedimentation issues have since greatly reduced their numbers.

Pennsylvania does not give hellbenders a protected status, however, nor is the species federally protected.

“It’s pretty much known that unless we do something they may no longer be around,” Small said.

By designating it the state amphibian, the students hope to instigate such change.

“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 high school student Emma Stone, president of the CBF Student Leadership Council, in a statement Tuesday. “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.”

New Hampshire is believed to be the first state to designate a state amphibian, an honor it bestowed in 1985 on the red-spotted newt. Another 22 states and the island of Puerto Rico have made similar designations over the years to various frogs, toads and other species of salamander.

Salamanders are not to be confused with lizards, which are reptiles. The Eastern hellbender is the only species of giant salamander to live in the United States. They spend their whole lives in the water, unlike so-called “true salamanders,” which belong to the suborder salamandroidea. Newts, which belong to yet another subspecies, are also considered more aquatic.

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