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Snot Otter Emerges Victorious In Vote For Pennsylvania...

Rick Callahan

by
Francesca Paris

Pennsylvania's soon-to-be official amphibian has more than its fair share of nicknames: snot otter, mud devil, Allegheny alligator, devil dog, lasagna lizard.

In short, it's not exactly a looker.

But the Eastern hellbender salamander was the overwhelming choice of lawmakers for amphibian representation in the state. On Tuesday, the state's House of Representatives voted 191-6 on a bill that would name the aquatic creature its state amphibian. The Senate passed the bill in February.

The hellbender is a nocturnal salamander that can grow more than 2 feet long. The mud-colored creature, covered in a layer of mucus, breathes primarily through loose flaps of thick, wrinkled skin that look a little bit like lasagna noodles.

The hellbender is also a canary for environmental degradation.

The giant salamander's sensitivity to pollution and changing conditions makes it an indicator species for healthy bodies of water, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The animal relies on cool, moving water to breathe and prefers rocky, swiftly flowing rivers and streams in the Appalachian region, with a range that stretches from northern Georgia to southern New York.

And according to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, which led the campaign to recognize the hellbender for more than two years, the creature's numbers have dropped substantially as its habitats have degraded. The group says the degradation has been caused by a lack of trees along waterways in Pennsylvania, which "allows waters to warm, polluted runoff to enter rivers and streams, and silt to build up in streambeds."

The creatures saw a rapid population decrease between 1998 and 2009, as Greg Lipps, the amphibian and reptile conservation coordinator at The Ohio State University, told NPR in 2017. Hellbenders have been listed as endangered in several states, including Illinois, Indiana and Maryland.

The salamander is listed as "near threatened" with a decreasing population by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, though that assessment hasn't been updated since 2004. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service notes that dams and illegal pet trade may also contribute to the species' decline.

Garth Everett, a Republican state representative who helped push the bill through Pennsylvania's House, said hellbenders have been on the decline.

"Not many people have actually seen hellbenders," Everett said after the vote, The Associated Press reports. "They live only in very clean streams, and they live under rocks."

Emma Stone, president of the CBF's Student Leadership Council, said Tuesday's bill moves the state toward cleaner water. "The passing of this bill is sure to allow hellbenders to breathe easier in the near future and give them a better chance of survival," she's quoted as saying in CBF's statement. "Not to mention a better chance for a clean water legacy in Pennsylvania."

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