The Pennsylvania Senate renewed its push Monday to make a slimy and unsightly salamander the state’s official amphibian in an effort to highlight the plight of a creature whose numbers researchers say are declining rapidly because of pollution in rivers and streams.
The Senate approved the bill in support of the Eastern hellbender, 48-1.
If approved by the state House, the salamander would join such creatures as the whitetail deer as the Pennsylvania state animal and the Great Dane as the state dog. The Senate passed an Eastern hellbender bill last year, but it died in the House, where it encountered competing legislation promoting the Wehrle’s salamander.
The sponsor of the hellbender bill, Sen. Gene Yaw, R-Lycoming, said members of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s student leadership council came up with the idea and Lycoming College’s Clean Water Institute helped draft it.
“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 during his remarks on the Senate floor. “It is an excellent natural indicator of good water quality.”
The hellbender is an aquatic salamander that can grow up to two feet long, making them the largest North American amphibian, according to the Center for Biological Diversity. They are nocturnal and prefer shallow, clear and fast streams with rocks to live under.
Its jarring appearance has inspired a range of nicknames, including mud devil, devil dog, ground puppy, snot otter, lasagna lizard and Allegheny alligator, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The Chesapeake Bay Foundation said hellbenders were plentiful in Pennsylvania as recently as 1990. Their numbers have since been decimated in Eastern states by pollution and sedimentation, researchers say.
Hellbenders don’t have federal protected status, although some states give them protected status. Pennsylvania does not.
The Wehrle’s legislation has not been reintroduced in the House. Wehrle’s salamander was said to be discovered by and named after a late naturalist, R.W. Wehrle, in Indiana, Pennsylvania.
Researchers say Wehrle’s salamander is common. It is a few inches in length and found in upland forests across the eastern United States.