Greater Harrisburg's Community Magazine

Sign of the Salamander: The hellbender puts a face (an arguably ugly one) on river quality, habitat health

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you probably know the Eastern hellbender is now our official state amphibian.

It’s the largest salamander in North America and actually does live under rocks. Although it’s not endangered, its population is declining. So why should people care about a big nocturnal salamander, also nicknamed the devil dog, the mud devil and, my personal favorite, the snot otter?

Experts say its very presence in Pennsylvania waterways, as an “indicator species,” signifies a healthy habitat and clean water.

“Historically, they lived in the Susquehanna all the way from New York down into Maryland, but most of those populations are gone now,” said Dr. Peter Petokas of Lycoming College. “Their range in the Susquehanna is limited now.”

This year marks Petokas’ 14th year of hellbender research, primarily in the Upper Susquehanna Basin.

The first 10 years were devoted to surveying waterways simply to find hellbenders. It’s no small task—the creatures typically live under huge, heavy rocks the size of car hoods. Petokas and teams of graduate students donned snorkeling or scuba gear in order to find and microchip more than 3,000 hellbenders for further study. They can live 30 to 50 years, eating crayfish, toads, snakes and fish.

Over the past several years, Petokas transitioned into conservation work.

Last summer, he helped release 99 juvenile hellbenders raised by the Bronx Zoo into upper Susquehanna waterways. It’s the first time anyone has attempted a restoration project with the hellbender in Pennsylvania. This summer, he’ll be checking on their health and condition. Meantime, more hellbenders are being reared for future releases.

Can the hellbender population be restored throughout the Susquehanna?

“It’s such a large watershed, my ideal goal is to reestablish the population in the healthier tributaries to start,” Petokas said. “It’s possible, as the quality of the river and its tributaries improve, the hellbender will disperse.”

Numerous partnerships and funding sources include the Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission, Upper Susquehanna Conservation Alliance, Chesapeake Bay Foundation and many others.

In the Harrisburg area, the lower Susquehanna and its tributaries—the Swatara, Yellow Breeches and Conodoguinet—no longer support hellbender populations, Petokas said. He’s considered doing a hellbender project in Perry County’s Sherman Creek, “a historic hellbender stream.”


Great Indicator

Petokas isn’t the state’s only hellbender expert.

Eric Chapman of the nonprofit Western Pennsylvania Conservancy has been studying western and central PA hellbender populations for a dozen years, primarily in the Allegheny River Basin—an area he calls “a hellbender stronghold.”

In 2014, he began relying on eDNA, testing water samples for DNA to determine if hellbenders are present in specific waterways. The process helps his team prioritize stream work. A large grant from the Smithsonian National Zoo launched the hellbender eDNA project across multiple states, including Pennsylvania.

Chapman said that most people will never see the reclusive animals in waterways—nor should they, as you need a scientific collectors’ permit in order to search for hellbenders. Instead, he recommends that people visit one of three Pennsylvania zoos to see the creatures—Philadelphia, Pittsburgh or Lehigh Valley.

“They’re such a great indicator of environmental health and quality,” Chapman said. “The biggest problem they face is sedimentation.”

When sediment settles around large rocks on the bottom of Pennsylvania’s waterways, it degrades hellbenders’ habitat. Acid mine drainage is another environmental issue hurting hellbender habitat.

Experts like Chapman and Petokas hope that naming the hellbender the official state amphibian raises environmental awareness.

The timing coincides with a recent environmental report by the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP). For the first time, its “2018 Integrated Water Quality Monitoring Assessment Report” assessed the Susquehanna River’s middle and lower reaches for aquatic life. The hellbender was not one of those species, however.

“Focusing on just one indicator species can be problematic because that species may be sensitive only to some pollutants and not others,” said Beth Rementer, DEP spokesperson. “It is much more protective to look at groups of species—entire communities of aquatic organisms.”

The report determined that nearly 18,000 (21 percent) of 85,000 miles of Pennsylvania waterways are considered impaired for aquatic life.

The leading sources of impairment cited in the report are agriculture, abandoned mine drainage, urban runoff/storm sewers and habitat modification.

As a result, the report recommends the lower Susquehanna (from Duncannon in Perry County to Columbia in Lancaster County) be placed on the impaired waters list, due to high pH levels. This classification would mean additional study by the DEP to remedy the water’s health.

Placing the Susquehanna on the impaired waters list is something the watchdog nonprofit Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF) has been advocating for several years. B.J. Small of CBF’s Harrisburg office calls the recent classification a “breakthrough.” More than half of the bay’s water flows from Pennsylvania.

The CBF’s “2018 State of the Bay” report gives the bay’s health a grade of D+. According to the report, “the bay suffered a massive assault in 2018” with “extraordinary weather flushing enormous amounts of nitrogen, phosphorous and debris mostly from PA off our lands and into the bay.”

“It’s important that people realize hellbenders are in trouble, so they can better understand what we do to protect and restore water,” Small said.

The hellbender puts a face, albeit an arguably ugly one, on the state’s declining species.

“We tend to focus on the charismatic species such as the bald eagle, trout or river otter,” Petokas said. “But I believe the hellbender is a very unique species in its own right.”

Learn more about the “2018 Integrated Water Quality Monitoring Assessment Report” at

Stories on environmental topics are proudly sponsored by LCSWMA.

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