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Rare hellbender catch has scientists eyeing the Kiski River

Mary Ann Thomas
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Courtesy Western Pennsylvania Conservancy
Hellbenders, large aquatic salamanders, are becoming rare in Pennsylvania. One recently was caught in the Kiski River, which points to high water quality because the animals require clean, oxygen-rich water to survive.
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Aaron Thompson | Facebook
Fisherman Aaron Thompson with a paddlefish he caught near Lock and Dam 9 in the Allegheny River on July 11, 2017.

Affectionately known as the “snot otter” and “lasagna lizard,” perhaps the real name of the hellbender best describes the mysterious creature that was just found in the Kiski River in Parks Township, the first known live specimen in the waterway for decades.

A fisherman named the largest salamander in North America a “hellbender” because it looked like it “crawled out of hell and was bent on going back,” according to lore.

Most residents have never seen the thick-bodied salamander with a large flat head for a number of reasons: It lives exclusively on river and stream bottoms in the rocks hunting its favorite food, crawfish, in clean waters.

Larry Dones, 43, of Apollo was always intrigued by the mysterious salamander that can reach up to two-foot in length, which he had seen only at a zoo.

Something was nibbling on Dones’ bait Monday evening along the banks of the Kiski.

“It didn’t swim like a fish and it didn’t feel like a turtle,” he said.

He reeled it in to discover a “weird brown thing squirming around. I thought it might be muskrat,” he said.

Upon closer inspection, Dones knew what he had and took a quick video , which since has gone viral. He removed the hook from the salamander’s mouth and put it back into the water.

“A hellbender in this river blew my mind,” he said.

The next day, Dones called friends to tell them about his catch including Neill Andritz, of Avonmore, who, along with his wife, Evelyn, owns The Rivers Edge Canoe & Kayak in Parks.

Andritz had never heard of anyone catching or even seeing a hellbender in the Kiski, where he has fished since 1989.

“We’re excited here,” said Andritz, who added that a number of anglers visit the river these days.

The hellbender is definitely quite the catch according to Eric Chapman, the director of aquatic science for the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy.

“That’s huge news for the Kiski,” he said. “Most people think of the Kiski as a pretty abused waterway.”

Another scientist who has been surveying the Kiski River for more than a decade was surprised to learn about the salamander finding but not shocked.

“There have been biological indicators of improving water quality on the Kiski including when we found the bluebreast and tippecanoe darters in 2013-2014,” said Brady Porter, associate professor of biology at Duquesne University.

A live, native mussel documented and filmed by a Kiski Township woman last year adds to evidence of improved water conditions, Porter said.

Chapman and a crew of scientists, including a scuba diver, made plans last year to survey for hellbenders in the Kiski and Allegheny rivers and elsewhere in the state this summer.

“This angler’s capture is further proof why we need to investigate in larger water systems,” he said.

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

“Our focus is to discover new populations,” Chapman said.

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 Chapman, because of water quality, rocky substrate in waterways and an ample crayfish population.

“They are one of the keystone species of the state,” he said.

“They can live up to 50 years, putting them with freshwater mussels as the most long-lived animals in our aquatic system.”

As Chapman has surveyed the salamanders before, he said they really aren’t slimy to the touch. Although, if agitated, will release mucus in self defense and do alligator rolls, he added.

The hellbender generally is not common but, in streams where the conditions are right, they can be found.

The hellbender is under review for a federal listing as an endangered or threatened species, according to Chapman. A decision is expected by the end of the year.

The general public is not permitted to collect hellbenders. A scientific collector’s permit is required to legally even touch one, unless an angler handles one to release it.

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

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