On January 23, Sen. Gene Yaw (R–Lycoming) reintroduced legislation—Senate Bill 9—to designate the eastern hellbender the state’s official amphibian and clean water ambassador.

Sen. Yaw serves as Majority Chair of the Senate Environmental Resources and Energy Committee and is one of Pennsylvania’s six representatives on the interstate Chesapeake Bay Commission. The bill passed the Senate in 2017, but got stuck in the House and died, disappointing the high school students who worked for two years researching the Hellbender and drafting the legislation.

The effort has gained national media attention in the Wall Street Journal and other outlets.
Hellbenders have been called a “natural barometer” of good water quality.  They can only live where the water is clean.

Over 6,400 people signed a petition from all over the state to urge the House to act.

Background on the Hellbender

Much of what remains of a depleted hellbender population in Pennsylvania can be found in waters in northcentral Pennsylvania, although recently a hellbender was found in the Kiski River in Parks Township, Armstrong County. Without help and more clean water, the Eastern hellbender could disappear. Hellbenders survive where there is cold, clear, swift-running water. They prefer rocky streambeds. Their spongelike bodies allow them to squeeze into crevices which they use for protection and for nesting. The slimy salamanders feed at night, primarily on crayfish. Folds of wrinkled skin provide a large surface through which they draw most of their oxygen. The presence of streamside trees or forested buffers stands out among factors that enable hellbenders to survive. A lack of forested buffers along Pennslyvlania waterways allows warm, polluted runoff to enter rivers and streams and silt to build up in streambeds. As a result, habitat has been degraded and hellbender numbers were decimated in streams where they were plentiful as recently as 1990.

The student effort on behalf of the hellbender began in the summer of 2016. Student leaders installed hellbender nesting boxes in the upper Susquehanna, and sampled streams for the presence of hellbender DNA. They gathered support for the hellbender designation from conservation groups, and visited the State University of New York (SUNY) Lab in Buffalo, N.Y. to learn about DNA testing. They also went to the Buffalo Zoo to see hellbenders up close. The students are collaborating with Dr. Peter Petokas, noted research associate at the Clean Water Institute at Lycoming College in Williamsport. Dr. Petokas has studied hellbenders for more than 10 years and has captured and microchipped over 3,000 of them.

The Western Pennsylvania Conservancy has also been conducting Hellbender research.

Click here to watch a video about hellbenders.