Welcome to stardom, Eastern Hellbender

We loved seeing the photo of all of the smiling young faces surrounding our state’s governor on the front page of a recent edition of the Williamsport Sun-Gazette.

The reason for the occasion was the designation of the Eastern Hellbender as the official state amphibian. With state Sen. Gene Yaw, R-Loyalsock Township, at his side and surrounded by youths from the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s Student Leadership Council, Gov. Tom Wolf put ink to paper to make the bill official.

The legislation was crafted by Yaw, Lycoming College’s Clean Water Institute and the council.

On the outside, a person might wonder why all of the hullabaloo over this creature and its slimy appearance. Indeed, among its nicknames is the snot otter, the lasagna lizard and mud puppy, though the hellbender is nothing a typical person would want to snuggle up with.

Yet he’s worth the recognition.

The largest and most unique salamander in North America has a body that may reach lengths up to 29 inches. The species, which feeds solely on crayfish, is totally aquatic and inhabits large streams and rivers. A top-level predator in the aquatic food chain, the Eastern Hellbender is considered an indicator of good water quality and diverse aquatic habitat.

The local college institute has been involved with the study of the hellbender for over a decade. Since 2006, student interns with the institute have studied the hellbender, researching where the local populations live and collecting data on their health. More recently, the focus of their work has expanded to include conservation and restoration, which requires the creation of habitats, as well as the collection of eggs to hatch, and hellbenders to raise and release back into the wild.

Yaw said the bill, signed one day after Earth Day, is about advocating for clean water and promoting conservation programs that improve water quality for all of our species.

“Today’s ceremony is about more than a declaration of an official state amphibian. It’s about reaffirming our commitment to the waters of Pennsylvania,” Wolf said.

Yaw, who is chairman of the Environmental Resources and Energy committee, also said he could not think of a better symbol to symbolize what the state thinks about clean water than the hellbender.

Welcome to stardom, little mud puppy!

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