Students draft bill to name official Pa. amphibian

WILLIAMSPORT — The continent’s largest salamander may join the rest of the state emblems as Pennsylvania’s first-ever official amphibian.

If the student-drafted bill passes, the brook trout, ruffed grouse, white-tailed deer, eastern hemlock and mountain laurel will be joined by the eastern hellbender — an amphibian that used to thrive along the East Coast but mysteriously is dying off.

With sizes in the range of 26 to 29 inches, the eastern hellbender is the largest salamander in North America, said Dr. Peter J. Petokas, of Lycoming College.

“That’s more than 2 feet,” Petokas said. “That’s a pretty big salamander.”

Despite being large amphibians, they’re rarely seen because they lay under rocks in creek beds and feed exclusively on crayfish.

“That’s pretty much all they eat … they never come out of the water and they breathe under the rocks,” Petokas said.

Through working with the animal as a research associate with the Clean Water Institute and the Department of Biology at Lycoming College, Petokas — with other specialists and a dedicated team of students — have noticed that the eastern hellbender is dying off — with no clear reason as to why.

“It’s the unfortunate part of this,” Petokas said. “It’s been a progressive thing and we don’t know why these animals have died off.”

And what made this dip in populations interesting was that no one saw it coming.

“We just saw they weren’t there anymore … it has largely disappeared in the Susquehanna River basin, other than small pockets of populations in certain places,” Petokas said.

The state doesn’t provide any real protection for the eastern hellbender other than regulations prohibiting the capturing or keeping of one. There’s also no federal protection. But, there is a subspecies in Arkansas that is federally endangered, Petokas said.

The state, however, would be forced to protect the animal if the the federal Fish and Wildlife Service determines it to be a federally protected species. The service has a deadline to determine that next year.

With students from Lycoming College, Petokas has been working on various projects studying and trying to conserve the small pockets of populations left in the area.

The group has built stream habitat structures, collected eggs to donate to the Bronx Zoo where the young hellbenders will be raised and released back into the wild and is planning on installing a stream habitat structure primarily for hellbenders in the local watershed.

“It’s a great group that comes out and helps us,” Petokas said. “It’s a lot of hard work … those boxes can be 60, 80, up to 100 pounds, and they are bringing them to the streams.”

Ryan Orgitano, of South Williamsport, spent his last three years as a student at Lycoming College working with Petokas and the Clean Water Institute.

Orgitano has helped survey a number of streams across the state as a part of the Unassessed Waters Initiative.

His work with the eastern hellbender included searching for DNA to establish where previously unstudied populations of hellbenders live.

Orgitano’s research was important for others studying the amphibian but vastly rewarding to him on a personal level, he said.

Although he will be taking a new path of research, he said he will miss working with the hellbenders and the trout that live in the same streams.

What may push the widespread awareness and preservation of the species that is synonymous with clean, healthy water is a student-drafted bill that would make the eastern hellbender the official amphibian of Pennsylvania.

The Student Leadership Council of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation is a half-dozen active students who work together on various projects improving the bay and watersheds that contribute to it.

The council started doing hellbender research with Petokas last summer.

“They went up to Buffalo (New York) and got with some other researchers and started tracking where hellbenders have been located currently and historically,” Student Leadership Coordinator Emily Thorpe said. “They saw the hellbender as a mascot for clean water and thought it was a good representation of the state.”

The students brought the bill to state Sen. Gene Yaw, R-Williamsport, with a convincing enthusiasm.

“These students were so enthusiastic about what they wanted to do,” Yaw explained. “The work they did impressed me … they were so interested and spent so much time looking at it.”

Growing up, Yaw said he remembers seeing hellbenders in local streams. But through supporting the student-drafted bill, he’s learned a lot more about the amphibian and why it could be a great promoter of quality water in Pennsylvania.

“One thing that struck me about this is that these animals are almost automatic barometers of water quality,” Yaw said. “If they are there, you can be pretty assured the water is great quality. I couldn’t think of anything better we could do to promote this amphibian and show how it benefits the area. It’s a win-win for everybody.”

The bill — in the Senate committee as of June 15 — has a ways to go until it is officially passed. But with no cost to the state, it would be an added plus that could be accomplished for the state during budget season, Yaw said.