Ever hear of Pennsylvania’s state amphibian, the Hellbender? While the name may seem cool, it definitely adds to the poor creature’s bad reputation and misunderstood life. No one seems sure of its origin these days, but because of its slimy, mud-colored appearance, many have colloquially deemed it so ugly that it’s surely bent for hell.
It was falsely believed that these salamanders were ferocious, with poisonous bites, living on small game fish and trout eggs while rendering fishing lines ineffective. Known by many names such as water dogs, mud devils, and Allegheny alligators, these creatures soon found themselves hunted and reviled – particularly by the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission that now is required to protect them. During the 1930s, they were chased with gig poles and caught with 100-hook trotlines. While they may have once been commonly found across Lancaster County and other tributaries of the Susquehanna River, as well as the river itself, their numbers have become more of a mystery in the modern age due to the lack of interest.
But Dr. Peter Petokas, a biology professor at Lycoming College – as well as some of his students – feel differently about the misunderstood creatures. For six years, Petokas has been seeking out hellbenders in the major tributaries that feed the West Branch of the Susquehanna River in order to assess the population size, health, and habits. Currently, of the 21 streams he has searched, he’s only found hellbenders in six, with many of the others polluted from acid mine drainage. Hellbenders require fairly deep, moving rivers and streams with relatively good-quality water in them. The most crucial factor, however, is the need for flat boulders that they can hide and nest under. When Petokas and crew finally find them, rubber gloves are required, as the slime coating the salamanders make it impossible to grasp – this is their main defense, doubling with an obnoxious taste that deters would-be predators.
Petokas first became interested with hellbenders as a graduate student at Binghamton University in New York State. Enthralled by this unlikely salamander living entirely underwater, breathing not through lungs, but instead by the absorption of air through their skin for 30 years or more. They are not pretty by conventional standards, looking like eels with toes – five pink ones on the back feet and four on the front – with beady eyes and a paddle tail. Rather than swim, they actually walk along the bottoms of the rivers and streams. “I like working with an animal that’s understudied and extremely secretive and somewhat elusive,” Petokas says of the creatures. Eastern hellbenders live only in North America and share no relation with any of the other 21 species of salamanders in Pennsylvania. In fact, they are cousins to the giant salamanders of China and Japan that grow to 5 feet and weigh up to 100 pounds. The main focus of the researchers search out in the wilds is to tag captured hellbenders – similar to the tags used on dogs and cats – check for deformities, and most importantly, to take samples of their slime. These samples will have their DNA checked at labs for any presence of the deadly fungus that has been killing amphibians since the late 1990s.
This fungus is one of the many threats to the hellbender population, alongside the acid mine drainage pollution and illegal poaching by collectors. While talks on the amphibians have shifted towards putting them on an endangered list, there’s still more documentation to be done before that can happen. The state of Pennsylvania does protect hellbenders, prohibiting the killing or removing of them from the wild. Despite research funding becoming sparse, Petokas is determined to keep studying the animal, hoping to expand his search to other parts of the state. In terms of immediate conservation within the state, Petokas would like to see stream restoration projects in areas where hellbenders are present to maximize habitat, along with state officials developing a concrete conservation plan for the future. His recommendation? Raise hellbenders from eggs in labs and release them into suitable streams in the hopes of seeding new colonies from which they can thrive.