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Lycoming College’s Clean Water Institute (CWI) scored a victory this week with its beloved Eastern hellbender, voted Pennsylvania’s official amphibian by the state’s House. Championed by Sen. Gene Yaw ’70 (R-23), the bill is expected to be signed by Gov. Tom Wolf on Tuesday. The news has sparked broad media coverage in outlets including ABC News and The Washington Post, among others.
The unofficial school mascot of Lycoming College, the Eastern hellbender is the largest salamander in North America, and subsists on a diet of crawfish, toads, snakes and fish. Since 2006, CWI student interns have engaged in the study of the hellbender, catching more than 3,000 of the creatures while they conduct research on where the local populations live and collect data on their health. More recently, the focus of their work has expanded to include conservation and restoration, which requires the creation of habitats, as well as the collection of eggs to hatch, and hellbenders to raise and release back into the wild.
Local conservation groups have been integral to the over 20 year success of CWI’s program and research. When a group of high school students with Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s Student Leadership Council (SLC) learned about the plight of the animal, they decided to propose and draft a bill requesting that the Eastern hellbender be named the Pennsylvania state amphibian. Lycoming College students helped draft the bill, the passage of which will strengthen efforts to conserve and protect hellbenders and provide new opportunities for support and advocacy for the amphibian and the ongoing work of the CWI.
“Clean water is important for humans and amphibians, and if we don’t act on making our waterways as clean as they can be, we will all suffer from it,” former SLC President Abby Hebenton said. “So, it’s important to bring awareness to it in a positive way, like with the hellbender, than deal with the repercussions later.”
“Because the Eastern Hellbender exemplifies what is good about Pennsylvania’s waterways, it is the perfect selection to become the official State Amphibian,” said Yaw. “It is an excellent natural indicator of water quality, so, in effect, if you have hellbenders in your water the water quality most likely is very good. The hellbender will be a visible symbol of Pennsylvania’s commitment to clean water.”
To support the CWI’s hellbender conservation efforts, donations can be made at: https://app.mobilecause.com/vf/Hellbender.