What the hellbender?

Main Line Today (August, 2019).

Water gushed over the cliff and crashed to the pool below before continuing on its way downstream. A cool mist drifted through the summer air, and I joined it. Casting off my hiking boots on a nearby rock, I waded into the shallows of the waterfall. And it was there, in a cool, clear waterbed in the Great Smoky Mountains, that I saw it. Below the surface, unmistakable in its size and shape, wading with me, was the hellbender.

Yes, the hellbender, a salamander whose sheer awesomeness in size and shape (growing some two feet in length, it’s the largest amphibian in North America) is matched only by the awesomeness of its name. And if the name offends some, well, its other monikers sound like insults exchanged in the schoolyard:

“Mud Devil!”

“Snot otter!”

“Lasagna lizard!”


For those who do not subscribe to Salamander Digest or may be living under a rock like this now famous amphibian, the hellbender has recently been named Pennsylvania’s official state amphibian. Governor Wolf signed it into law this past spring, and forevermore elementary students will file away the hellbender alongside state trivia staples like the ruffed grouse and the firefly (our state bird and insect respectfully).

The idea behind the hellbender’s official recognition – arguably one of the best pieces of legislation passed in the Commonwealth’s history – is to raise awareness about the need to protect our waterways. As an amphibian, the hellbender absorbs oxygen from the water, and polluted waterways have had a major impact on the decline of hellbenders and salamanders as a whole.

Through a program run by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, student leaders led the campaign to bestow official state honors on the hellbender. Interestingly enough, it was 45 years ago that a group of students from Upper Darby School District spearheaded the campaign to designate the firefly as our state insect. It seems youth are always doing cool stuff like that. It’s a shame they ever grow up.

It was in Upper Darby of all places that I discovered my own love for salamanders. The grand waterway known as Darby Creek cut through a small swath of woods adjacent to what is now the Drexelbrook Catering Center. For boys in the mid-1980s, it might as well have been the wilds of Alaska. My brothers routinely returned home from adventures there with an assortment of turtles and snakes, much to our poor mother’s dismay. The reptiles would take up temporary residence in a Mr. Turtle Pool or aquarium tank before being evicted.

On one such adventure, our father joined us and we collected a dozen or so salamanders for my third-grade science project. The salamander population in Darby Creek must have been fairly high at the time, for within minutes we had captured our self-imposed quota. Those salamanders took up residence in a 10-gallon aquarium tank in my room. They made a guest appearance at school, earned me an “A” on my amphibian project, and then they too were evicted.

Today, I live a stone’s throw from the Brandywine River. It’s my own children’s Darby Creek, there for the exploring. And yet try as they might, the noble quest for salamanders has grown increasingly difficult as populations rapidly decline with both the loss of habitat and continued pollution to our waterways.

Here’s hoping the hellbender, now that he’s working for the state, has other plans.


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