It was a student project. Great job kids!
Students bent on making hellbender PA’s state amphibian
May 17, 2017 ODU Admin Top Fishing Headlines Comments Offon Students bent on making hellbender PA’s state amphibian
With its huge, flat head and slimy skin, the Eastern hellbender won’t win any beauty contests. It’s picked up such unflattering nicknames as “snot otter” and “old lasagna sides.”
But because the rarely seen giant salamander can only live in the most pristine of streams, a small group of Pennsylvania high school students thinks Cryptobranchus alleganiensis alleganiensis should be named the official state amphibian, as a sort of clean water mascot. By calling attention to the existence — and decline —of hellbenders, the students hope to foster awareness in Pennsylvania of the need to restore the health of its rivers and streams.
“We want hellbenders to become a household name,” said River Sferlazza, 16, a member of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s Student Leadership Council in Pennsylvania. “If it’s the state amphibian, hellbenders will become harder for people to forget.”
The student leadership council is an experiential learning program for young advocates for clean water in the Bay watershed. It’s a small group of teens — sometimes five meet monthly, and seven attend a field trip. They are recruited through other foundation programs, and most live or go to school in the Harrisburg suburbs. Students learn about the Chesapeake from experts, who provide hands-on field experience in restoration science and policy formation.
In Pennsylvania, the hellbender became the focus for the council when a few members became fascinated with a model of the creature in the CBF’s Harrisburg office. The students were determined to learn more. They waded in cold streams in September to install concrete hellbender “houses,” met face-to-face with laboratory-raised hellbenders and even sampled their home streams for the presence of hellbender DNA.
The salamander is olive-gray, sometimes with rust splotches. Flat-bodied and flexible, they live, feed and nest under large flat rocks in mountain streams across a range from Arkansas to New York. It is North America’s largest salamander and can grow 2 feet long. When handled, they writhe and thrash, but are actually soft and harmless to humans. No one knows where they got their name, but one theory is that fisherman or early settlers said they looked like they came from hell and were hell-bent on getting back.
As the students learned about hellbenders, they wanted to do more to help protect them —and promote clean water in Pennsylvania.
“I did a little research and found that we didn’t have a state amphibian. Roughly 30 states do, and none of them have designated the hellbender,” said Lane Whigham, a CBF staffer who coordinates activities for the student group. “I suggested they write a bill. During the next monthly meeting, they had drafted legislation.”
Armed with knowledge gleaned from the field, and a draft bill, the group’s next field trip took them to the state capital complex in Harrisburg in March, where they met with Sen. Gene Yaw, R-Lycoming, who serves on the Chesapeake Bay Commission and is the chair of the Senate Environment and Energy Committee.
“I did agree to introduce a bill that a group of kids were so enthused about and made a lot of good arguments and gave good supporting background,” Yaw said. “I know there will be critics about this, but I think it’s good to have kids see government work.”