How many hellbenders live in Western Pa.? Group hopes to learn this summer | TribLIVE.com
Valley News Dispatch

How many hellbenders live in Western Pa.? Group hopes to learn this summer

Mary Ann Thomas
1047235_web1_GTR-hellbenderFILE
Getty Images
An Eastern Hellbender foraging for crayfish on the bottom of the creek.
1047235_web1_vnd-hellbendersurvey3-042319
Courtesy of the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy
Alysha Trexler, watershed project manager for the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, holds an Eastern hellbender salamander.
1047235_web1_vnd-hellbender4-042319
Courtesy of the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy
Eric Chapman of the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy points to an Eastern hellbander.
1047235_web1_GTR-hellbenderFILE2
AP
In this June 18, 2014, photo, Rod Williams, a Purdue University associate professor of herpetology, holds a hellbender that he and a team of students collected in southern Indiana’s Blue River near Corydon, Ind., during a survey of populations of the rare amphibian. Hellbenders, an aquatic animal that’s North America’s largest salamander, are endangered in Indiana and four other states and face habitat loss and other pressures in the 11 other mostly Eastern states where they live in swift-flowing, rocky rivers and streams. (AP Photo/Rick Callahan)

The search is on this summer for the Allegheny alligator or the snot otter, better known as the Eastern hellbender, in rivers in Western Pennsylvania.

The Western Pennsylvania Conservancy plans July surveys in the Kiski, Allegheny and Youghiogheny rivers for the salamander, a reclusive creature that lives under rocks the size of a dining room table.

State lawmakers last week passed legislation naming the hellbender the state amphibian. Gov. Tom Wolf is expected to sign the legislation Tuesday.

After a long absence due to relentless pollution in the Kiski, an angler caught one of the salamanders in an unlikely location at least fives miles from the Kiski’s confluence with the Allegheny River in the Parks Township area in the spring of 2018. Conservancy plans to further document the hellbender that year were dashed by too much rain and a narrow window for surveying before the salamander’s breeding season in August.

Eric Chapman, director of aquatic science at the conservancy, and his crew will have to dive to find the hellbender, which feeds primarily on crayfish.

Although Pennsylvania is blessed in the number of streams where hellbenders have been found, no one knows for sure how many there are and where they are, according to Chapman. He said the conservancy is doing the survey to fill in the gaps.

“It’s such an important animal to Pennsylvania, and it’s finally getting that recognition,” Chapman said.

The hellbender is an oddly charismatic animal. The flat-bodied salamander’s tiny eyes and folded skin on its sides inspired yet another nickname “the lasagna lizard.” The hellbender is largest salamander in the country at about 2 feet in length and can live to about 50 years of age.

“They’re tanks, weighing almost 4 pounds,” said Chapman, who has been surveying for hellbenders since 2007.

But the excitement over the hellbender goes way beyond its looks. Its very presence is a good sign that a local river or tributary is healthy.

Knowing the giant salamander’s special relationship with a clean environment, student volunteers for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation lobbied for the state amphibian designation. According to the foundation, the hellbender numbers have been decimated in Eastern states by pollution and sedimentation.

The specimen found in the Kiski last year likely made its way up from the Allegheny River, where the conservancy has documented the large salamanders living in some of the Allegheny’s pools for a number of years, according to Chapman.

There are reports of hellbenders moving 15 to 20 miles in streams. Conversely, Chapman has recaptured some specimens that moved less than 100 yards in seven years.

Researchers need a scientific collectors permit to search for and collect them. They measure and record the amphibians and put them back in the water, advising that anglers who catch them do the same.

Mary Ann Thomas is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Mary at 724-226-4691, [email protected] or via Twitter .

TribLIVE commenting policy

You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.

We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.

While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.

We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers

We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.

We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.

We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.

We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.