Spotted Water Gecko Named Official State Amphibian

Governor Tom Wolf today was joined by state officials and clean water advocates for the signing of Senate Bill 9, designating the “Eastern hellbender” as Pennsylvania’s state amphibian. Sponsored by Senator Gene Yaw, the bill was championed through the legislative process by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s Student Leadership Council to generate greater awareness of the importance of clean waterways in the commonwealth.

“Today’s ceremony is about more than a declaration of an official state amphibian. It’s about reaffirming our commitment to protecting our waters in Pennsylvania,” said Governor Tom Wolf. “Clean water is critical for the hellbender and we need to continue to do our part to improve water quality in the commonwealth so that the state first amphibian can thrive.”

For more than two years, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s student leaders spearheaded efforts to recognize the Eastern hellbender and create greater awareness of the largest salamander in North America’s role in demonstrating the critical need to reduce pollution in Pennsylvania’s rivers and streams.

“I want to thank the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and also acknowledge the hard work of the Foundation’s Student Leadership Program,” said Governor Wolf “The voices of students can clearly make a difference here in Harrisburg.”

“As the governor indicated, this bill is more than just about naming a new symbol for our state,” Sen. Gene Yaw said. “It’s about fostering youth involvement in the legislative process and championing an issue through that process. It’s about advocating for clean water in Pennsylvania and promoting conservation programs that improve water quality for all of our species. The uniqueness of the hellbender and its contribution to aquatic biological diversity are adequate justifications for this remarkable designation. I applaud Governor Wolf for recognizing the importance of the hellbender to our state, and also for affirming for our young citizens that
they can make a difference if they get involved in the governmental process.”

The Eastern hellbender is a nocturnal salamander that can grow more than two feet long. They can be found in cold, clear, swift-running rivers and streams of the Susquehanna watershed. They prefer rocky streambeds with crevices, which they use for protection and for nesting sites. But the loss of forested buffers along these waterways is resulting in warmer waters and silted streambeds, degrading their habitat and decimating their numbers in streams where they were plentiful as recently as 1990.

“As much as this effort has been about the hellbender and clean water, it’s also a story about the creativity and passion of these leaders,” said Harry Campbell, Executive Director, Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

“It is my hope that other student leaders across the commonwealth may be inspired by our work. That they too will take action on behalf of the hellbender and clean water in the commonwealth. Making change is possible, no matter your age. All you need is dedication, support, and of course, a worthy cause,” said Emma Stone, President, Chesapeake Bay Foundation, Pennsylvania Student Leadership Council.

“Today is a victory not only for hellbenders and clean water, but also for the power of student voices. It has been a remarkable experience to witness the growth and dedication of our student leaders as they tirelessly pursued this designation over the last few years. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation would like to thank Governor Wolf, Senator Yaw, and all the legislators who supported both the hellbender and our student leaders,” said Emily Thorpe, Pennsylvania Student Leadership Coordinator, Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

“I am proud to have introduced a companion bill to Sen. Yaw’s and am happy that this legislation has made its way to the governor’s desk,” said Rep. Sheryl Delozier. “Earlier this year students from Mechanicsburg Area Senior High School came to me to talk about officially making the Eastern Hellbender our state’s amphibian. I was impressed not only by these young people and their leadership, but also how the hellbender serves as an indicator of water quality. The hellbender is quite sensitive to poor water quality and pollution, so its presence in the state’s
waterways helps us gauge how clean that water is.”

Referred to by nicknames such as “mud devil”, “devil dog”, “ground puppy”, “snot otter”, “lasagna lizard”, and “Allegheny alligator”, the hellbender has certainly been colored as “a creature from hell where it’s bent of returning.” This large amphibian can be found crawling around the bottoms of clear, silt-free mountain streams. They are generally nocturnal, spending most of the day under rocks on the stream floor, emerging at night to hunt crayfish. They are not native to Armstrong County.

The most recent state symbol naming was in 1974 when Governor Milton Shapp signed legislation naming the firefly Pennsylvania’s state insect.