What has a flat head, covered in layers of mucous and has skin that looks like lasagna noodles? No, it’s not your next date on Tinder, it is Pennsylvania’s new state amphibian. Why, you ask, would the Commonwealth’s legislature spend its time naming such an unsightly animal to represent Pennsylvania? Well, that is a very good question that deserves a very good answer.
If you happen to come across a Hellbender (also known as snot otter, lasagna lizard or Allegheny alligator) under a huge rock, please be kind to that ugly little guy because one thing you can be sure of is that stream is flowing with fresh, clean, unpolluted water. You see, the snot otter is the canary for environmental degradation. He may not be pretty but the lasagna lizard is picky about his water. This giant salamander has an unusual method of respiration which involves cutaneous gas exchange through capillaries found in its dorsoventral skin folds (again, yuck!) therefore, the Hellbender requires excellent water quality in order to survive and reproduce. Since the Allegheny Alligator lives a long life, sometimes 50 years, a sighting is a good indicator of the long-term health of a stream.
Our Hellbender may not be winning any Cute Amphibian contests but he is a champion for preserving clean water in our Commonwealth. Perhaps this recognition will reignite our childhood passion for lifting rocks to find salamanders. Admittedly, finding this giant salamander might take your breath away for a minute, but also a nice reassurance the waterway you are exploring is healthy, clean and thriving. Unfortunately, any impact on our streams from degradation of dams, poor agricultural practices, heavy logging and acid mine drainage, have negative impacts on this species’ survival.
If you can look beyond the flat head, mucous layers and noodle skin, you will understand why the legislature recently voted to name this very unique amphibian as our State amphibian but most importantly as a reminder to be aware of the importance of long-lasting, clean water in Pennsylvania.