Governor signs bill recognizing amphibian

KAREN VIBERT-KENNEDY/Sun-Gazette Sen. Gene Yaw , left, Dr. Peter Petokas,students from the Chesapeake Bay Foundation's Student Leadership Council and Gov Tom Wolf, looks on as Gov. Wolf signs Senate Bill 9 desginating the Eastern Hellbender as Pennsylvania's state amphibian at the state capitol in Harrisburg on Tuesday.

HARRISBURG — It was all smiles in the Governor’s Reception Room at the State Capitol building in Harrisburg for Tuesday’s signing ceremony designating the Eastern Hellbender as the first official state amphibian.

Looking around the room state Sen. Gene Yaw, R-Loyalsock Township, said, “Often the legislation that gets passed is addressing an issue that we are trying to remedy. I get the feeling that most of the legislation looks like everybody has been sucking on a lemon when they line up to talk about it. This is not that way.”

The hellbender, also known by the names snot otter, lasagna lizard and mud puppy, is the largest and most unique salamander in North America. Their bodies can reach lengths up to 29 inches, officials at the ceremony said.

Yaw, who sponsored the bill, was joined by Gov. Tom Wolf, state officials and students from the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, for the signing.

The legislation was crafted by Yaw, the foundation, Pennsylvania Student Leadership Council and Lycoming College’s Clean Water Institute.

Yaw noted the bill is more than just about naming a new symbol for our state, it’s 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 noted the he could not think of a better symbol that symbolizes what Pennsylvania thinks about clean water than the hellbender.

The presence of the amphibian is an indicator good water quality and diverse aquatic habitat.

“If you have hellbenders in your stream, chances are the water is of very, very good quality,” Yaw said.

Lycoming College’s President Dr. Kent C. Trachte, Dr. Philip Sprunger, provost and dean, and Dr.Peter Petokas, research associate at Lycoming College and faculty member of the Clean Water Institute were also on hand for the signing ceremony.

The Clean Water Institute, celebrating it’s 20th year this year, comprises Lycoming College faculty and students.

Dr. Petokas, Dr. Mel Zimmerman, director, along with the institute have been researching and working with the hellbender for 14 years.

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s student leaders for more than two years, have spearheaded the efforts to recognize the Eastern hellbender. The students were introduced to the amphibian through their volunteer work with the institute.

“Lycoming College is very excited about having the hellbender named the state amphibian,” Trachte said. “Petokas began this work as a scientist, because he was interested in this species and the threats to it’s survival and under the auspices of our Clean Water Institute their have been tens of students who have joined Petokas in doing this research and established the science that really underlies today’s ceremony. They established the science that the hellbender is a particularly good indicator of when water quality deteriorates.”

The bill and it’s link to Lycoming College has also brought attention to institute, the college and it’s research as Petokas has been fielding questions from media all over the country.

The college, which has had the Warrior as it’s mascot since it’s inception, has seen a push to make the hellbender a mascot as well. “Lycoming College can have two mascots, the warrior and the hellbender and we are proud claim both heritages as representatives of our college,” Trachte said.

The hellbender can be found in cold, clear, swift running rivers and streams of the Susquehanna watershed. They prefer rocky stream with crevices, which they use for protection for nesting sites. The loss of forested buffers along these waterways resulted in warmer waters and silted streambeds, degrading their habitat and decimating their numbers in streams where they were plentiful as recently as 1990. The population is probably only about 10 percent of what it used to be, according to Petokas.

The students, scientists and legislators hope the attention of today’s signing will help bring attention to the plight of the amphibian.

“The conservation work is much more important than anything else I’ve ever done, because we are actually restoring historic populations that no longer exist,” Petokas said.

“They’re the canary in the coal mine,” Yaw said. “They can’t live in bad water.”

Sadly, sediment pollution in water can choke hellbenders and bury their eggs in riverbeds, threatening their populations.

By planting trees along streambanks and repairing eroded banks to reduce sediment, hellbender’s habitats can be improved.

It’s fitting the senator from Lycoming County sponsored the bill that became law. Loyalsock Creek, named River of the Year for 2018, is a waterway that has been improved through department grants and partnerships throughout the watershed, he said.

Here’s a few fun facts about the hellbender.

• It’s a species evolved from similar giants that once lived in North America, but are now extinct.

• The hellbender is totally aquatic and inhabits large stream and rivers.

• The species feeds solely on crayfish and is a top level predator in the aquatic food chain.

• The species is an indicator of good water quality and diverse aquatic habitat, and a contributor to the rich biological diversity in waterways.

• Protection of streams and rivers from degradation is critical to survival of the hellbender as it is for other rare aquatic species.

• The uniqueness of the hellbender species and its contribution to aquatic biological diversity are adequate justification for the species to be designated as the Pennsylvania State Amphibian.


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