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The eastern hellbender is one step closer to becoming Pennsylvania’s first ever official state amphibian with the passing of Senate Bill 658, a collaborated effort of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s Pennsylvania Student Leadership Council and Lycoming College’s Clean Water Institute (CWI). The bill advocates for the hellbender to be appointed the state amphibian due to its natural ability to indicate water quality — a characteristic that they believe would make the hellbender a mascot for clean water and an ideal representation of the state. Though many Pennsylvania natives might be learning about the animal for the first time as a result of the bill, members of the Lycoming College community are no strangers to the hellbender, since the College’s biology department and CWI have been studying the creature for years.
Peter Petokas, Ph.D., research associate at Lycoming College and faculty member of the CWI, has been working with and researching the hellbender for 12 years. His work with college students began in 2006 with several projects focused on studying the ecology and health of the eastern hellbender in tributaries of the Susquehanna River. Petokas noted that at first, their projects revolved around population ecology — looking at where hellbender populations were occurring locally and how they were doing. Over the years however, their efforts moved toward conserving and restoring the declining population of hellbenders by creating habitats and collecting hellbender eggs to hatch, raise and release back into the wild with the help of several outside conservation groups.
Student involvement in hellbender research has been integral to the CWI’s efforts, and has incited a passion for many that extends beyond the classroom. “Over the last decade, more than 30 CWI interns have been engaged in the study of the population as well as completing some independent study projects and honors projects,” said Mel Zimmerman, Ph.D., professor emeritus of biology and director of the CWI. “The hands-on field and lab experiences provided by this project have sparked several students to continue on in careers in wildlife and ecology.”
The CWI’s hellbender project attracts student interns each year who are eager to seize the rare opportunity to work with the animals. “Working with Dr. Petokas on the Hellbender project was one of the greatest experiences of my life,” said Ruric Bowman ’20. “I was given the opportunity to work with and study these elusive and rare amphibians. There are only so few people who can say that they had the opportunity to study these amazing creatures, and I’m glad to be able to say that I’m one of them.”
The CWI’s hellbender research recently attracted the attention of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s Pennsylvania Student Leadership Council, a group of high school students who approached Petokas with an interest in learning what they could do to help the hellbender’s cause. The group accompanied Petokas on a day trip to New York that involved setting up concrete nesting boxes to collect hellbender eggs to be housed in the Bronx Zoo for hatching and release back into the wild. Following this experience, the students came up with the idea to propose and draft a bill requesting that the eastern hellbender be named the Pennsylvania state amphibian.
Senator Gene Yaw presented the student-drafted bill to the Senate State Government Committee on Nov. 15. Yaw believes that the bill offers an opportunity to send a clear message about the importance of clean water in Pennsylvania. “The hellbender as Pennsylvania’s official state amphibian would symbolize the high value that the commonwealth has for the pristine waters that run through it,” stated Yaw. “The positive impact of Senate Bill 658 extends to all species that rely on clean water, which essentially encompasses all wildlife in Pennsylvania, including us.”
Though the bill has yet to pass in the House of Representatives, Petokas believes that the attention that it has already generated is a step in the right direction. “We want this effort to be successful so that we can garner support for the conservation efforts that we’re pursuing,” said Petokas.
Petokas and Zimmerman hope that the awareness raised by the bill will strengthen efforts to conserve and protect hellbenders, as there is currently no real state or federal protection in place for them.
“Think about it,” remarked Zimmerman. “The largest salamander in North America is living in our local waterways. We need to do what we can to protect this ancient species.”
The CWI, comprised of Lycoming College faculty and students, contributes to the area’s understanding and health of the West Branch of the Susquehanna River and its tributaries, and provides students with the opportunity to gain hands-on field experience in our local waterways. For more information on the CWI and its work with hellbenders, visit http://www.lycoming.edu/cwi/.