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Hellbender worthy of the state name

The waters of the Susquehanna Greenway are filled with many creepy crawlers, from small critters such as crawdads and spiders, to larger creatures that have made history and may even be right in your backyard.

Take for example, the infamous Susquehanna alligator. Discovered near Wilkes-Barre in 1899, this 533-pound escaped pet caused quite a stir with locals when discovered in the waters of the Susquehanna River. While he was later hunted down torch-and-pitchfork style and sold to a noted taxidermist of Cornell University, this unique find still made a splash.

The alligator is not the only monster found in the Susquehanna. More recently, a lucky fisherman pulled in a giant monster catfish from the lower Susquehanna. This 50-pound catch in York County even set a new state-wide record.

Of all the amazing creatures that have been discovered in our local waters over the years, only one has claimed the noteworthy title of “Official State Amphibian”–the Hellbender Salamander.

The Hellbender, fondly referred to by locals as a “mud puppy” or “snot otter,” is the third largest salamander in the world. Records of its existence date back nearly 160 million years.

In the United States, the Hellbenders’ range includes waterways from Southern New York to Georgia.

Hellbenders who live in the Susquehanna Greenway are predominately found in the tributary creeks and streams of the Susquehanna River due to cooler water temperatures and flowing water.

Despite this large range, hellbenders are homebodies and can often be found under the same rocks for most of their lives. Talk about living under a rock!

The species is nocturnal and spends most of the day under rocks. These reclusive salamanders only emerge at night to hunt the favorite food: crayfish. In addition to their strange sleeping habits, Hellbenders also breathe through their skin. To do so, they filter water through pores in their skin which absorb the oxygen from the water.

Due to this strange adaptation, hellbenders prefer clean, silt-free, moving bodies of water. This trait makes hellbenders an “indicator” species for healthy water with low pollution levels. The absence of hellbenders indicates the water may be polluted or dirty.

While rumors that hellbenders are venomous have circulated over the years, probably due to their strange coloring which can be brown, dark-green, or a red-orange, this gossip is not true. Hellbenders are harmless and not aggressive. In fact, it’s rare to come across a hellbender unless you go looking for one.

Recently, hellbender population numbers have been dropping and the species has been listed as “near threatened.” The drop in their numbers is largely due to a reduction in water quality and the building of dams and structures which limit the flow of water.

As water slows down, it increases in temperature which makes it unable to hold as much oxygen. Increases in contaminants and a reduction in water flow make it harder for creatures like the hellbenders to breath. For more information on the hellbender, check out the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s webpage.

This past April, the Pennsylvania House voted 191-6 to make the Hellbender the state’s official amphibian. Officials hope this decision will increase awareness about the Hellbender, its role, and the importance of keeping its habitat of Pennsylvania’s beautiful waterways clean.

If you do decide to go looking for this Greenway critter, be careful to respect its habitat and minimize your impact on the local environment.

About the Author: Emma Downey was the 2019 Summer Media and Communications intern at the Susquehanna Greenway Partnership (SGP). SGP’s Communications team works to engage people with and connect them to the many beautiful outdoor opportunities that surround them along the Susquehanna Greenway. To learn more about SGP and the Greenway visit susquehannagreenway.org.