What is a hellbender, Pennsylvania’s new official state amphibian? | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

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What is a hellbender, Pennsylvania’s new official state amphibian?

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Cryptobranchus alleganiensis, aka Eastern Hellbender, aka Allegheny alligator, aka snot otter, aka lasagna lizard
  • Cryptobranchus alleganiensis, aka Eastern Hellbender, aka Allegheny alligator, aka snot otter, aka lasagna lizard
At night, it glides silently through the water in search of prey, sneaking up on unsuspected creatures and swallowing them whole.

It goes by the name Eastern hellbender, and on April 16, it became Pennsylvania’s first official state amphibian.

The hellbender, aka Allegheny alligator, aka snot otter, aka lasagna lizard, is a salamander and the largest amphibian in North America. It can reach lengths of more than two feet and weigh more than five pounds. They typically inhabit clear, fast-moving streams and can be found throughout the Appalachian mountains of Pennsylvania.

Hellbenders feed mostly on crawfish, except in the winter when they eat small minnows. They are ambush predators: Their heads resemble flat, muddy river rocks which act as excellent camouflage.



The vote to recognize the hellbender as the state amphibian passed 191-6, with a small contingency advocating for Wehrle’s salamander, a common species named after an Indiana, Pa. naturalist.

State Rep. Garth Everett (R-Lycoming) supported the hellbender recognition and noted the role they play in identifying the healthiest water in Pennsylvania, since the species will only live in very clean streams.

The vote to recognize the Eastern hellbender wasn’t just about recognizing a large animal that inhabits the commonwealth's waterways; it was about recognizing its role in keeping our water and environment clean and free of pollutants.

According to Lycoming College in Williamsport, Pa., Eastern hellbender populations have “declined precipitously throughout their geographic range in the eastern United States, with some populations approaching extinction.”

The Western Pennsylvania Conservancy says the Eastern hellbender “is one of the most important aquatic species found in Pennsylvania.” Because hellbenders require exemplary water quality in order to survive and reproduce, the Conservancy notes that “their presence a great indicator of the long-term health of a stream.”

Basically, if Pennsylvanians stop seeing Eastern hellbenders in their streams, they can assume something is polluting their waterways, whether it is heavy industry, farming, or natural-gas drilling. Keep an eye out for our new official state amphibian and if you find one that is healthy, know that our water is likely clean.

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