How many hellbenders live in Western Pa.? Group hopes to learn this summer |
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Mary Ann Thomas

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.

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