Students push state recognition for ‘snot otters’ |
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Mary Ann Thomas
The Hellbender, also known as the “snot otter,” is the nation’s largest salamander and a native of Pennsylvania. A group of students is petitioning the state Legislature to recognize the Hellbender as the state amphibian.

A group of students took notice of the nation’s largest salamander, a thick-bodied, flat-headed salamander nicknamed “snot otter,” and were moved by the hellbender’s odd appearance and, despite that appearance, its preference for clean water.

They are calling on the Pennsylvania Legislature to designate the homely-looking creature as the state amphibian.

Locally, scientists with the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy have been conducting surveys documenting the hellbender, which spends its time under rocks at the bottom of waterways.

In fact, conservancy field researchers had planned to survey the Kiski River this year for the amphibian. An Apollo fisherman pulled one out of the river in Parks Township earlier this year and videotaped the mud puppy-like creature, which he returned to the river.

The hellbender’s appearance in the river caused a stir because the clean-water loving amphibian has been absent in the upper reaches of the once heavily polluted river.

The continuous summer rain and high water levels on the Kiski prevented a survey this year, but the conservancy plans to survey for them again in 2019, according to Eric Chapman, the director of aquatic science for the conservancy.

A consortium of students working with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation wrote a proposed bill, which passed the State Senate in November, and has been sitting in the House ever since, according to David Hess of Harrisburg, the former state Department of Environmental Protection secretary who works as a lobbyist for environmental groups such as the Pennsylvania Environmental Council.

The bill is now with the House State Government Committee.

Anna Pauletta, 19, of Mechanicsburg and a sophomore at Penn State, started working on the bill in 2016 when she was a high school student at Cumberland Valley High School in Mechanicsburg. She now volunteers for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation working on the designation of the hellbender as the state amphibian.

“Hellbenders are magnificent creatures that have been able to maintain this secretive life under the rocks, and a lot of people don’t know they exist,” she said.

“They are not only cool in their own right, but set the standard for Pennsylvania water quality.”

The conservancy, supported by a grant from the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources for this summer’s hellbender survey, has been monitoring the large salamanders since 1998.

Historically, the conservancy has surveyed for the salamanders higher up in the Allegheny River tributaries near Tionesta and other waterways in the Allegheny National Forest, northern Indiana County and Westmoreland County.

Pennsylvania has some of the best populations of hellbenders in the world, according to the conservancy, because of water quality, rocky substrate in waterways and an ample crayfish population.

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

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