Summer Smiles, Grad Gifts, and Great Giveaways
- May 31, 2023
The large, slimy looking creature quickly disappeared under a rock ledge and then the lizard-like being turned and peered at me from the darkness beneath the ledge. I was SCUBA diving in a deep hole in Loyalsock Creek when I spotted the somewhat grotesque looking critter; it was my first up close encounter with an
The large, slimy looking creature quickly disappeared under a rock ledge and then the lizard-like being turned and peered at me from the darkness beneath the ledge. I was SCUBA diving in a deep hole in Loyalsock Creek when I spotted the somewhat grotesque looking critter; it was my first up close encounter with an Eastern Hellbender. A number of years later I was wading in Muncy Creek while fishing when I caught sight of some movement in a few feet of water nearby; it was a Hellbender slithering off in search of a new hiding place. It was my second sighting. As much time as I spend wading and floating in rivers and streams you would think I would have a lot more sightings however Hellbenders are nocturnal and are rarely active during daytime hours.
As a kid growing up I was always fascinated with creeping, crawling things like snakes, lizards and salamanders. I still find these critters fascinating so when I caught sight of my first Hellbender, especially while I was submerged with it in its own habitat, I was excited.
Now a lot of people are probably still wondering what it is I’m talking about-just what is a Hellbender? If you asked around I’d bet very few people would say they ever heard of them let alone actually saw one. As salamanders go the Eastern Hellbender is truly a giant; it’s one of the largest salamanders in North America reaching lengths of up to 29 inches. Hellbenders have a flattened head, small eyes and skin folds along the side of the body. They live under water and breathe through their slimy skin. They do have lungs but they serve the purpose of providing buoyancy.
As I already mentioned, Hellbenders are nocturnal staying hidden under rocks during daylight. They come out to feed at night on small fish and hellgrammites and crayfish are high on their list of foods. Hellbenders prefer cold, moving water with lots of rock structure for cover; that’s also where large numbers of crayfish can be found. As “ugly” as these creatures may appear they are actually quite harmless. They do have small teeth but they are not aggressive and contrary to what some people believe they are definitely not poisonous.
Hellbenders are not tolerant of polluted waters therefore they are a good measure of how healthy a stream or river may be. There are probably far less numbers today than many years ago due to mine acid pollution, siltation and other water quality problems but they do occur in many of Susquehanna River basin tributaries.
In recent years Hellbenders have received a lot of scrutiny and study. Scientists and students from our own Lycoming College have conducted studies of distribution, ecology, and health of the Eastern Hellbender. On April 17 state lawmakers passed SB 9 and Gov. Wolf signed into law legislation that makes the Eastern Hellbender Pennsylvania’s official state amphibian.
It’s important to remember that Hellbenders are protected-you cannot harm or remove them. Fishermen on rare occasions may hook one; be careful when removing the hook. If the hook can’t be removed -cut the line and release the Hellbender. It’s also advisable to take care not to disturb rocks where Hellbenders seek cover.
Remember, if you happen to see one of those big, two foot long, slimy salamanders consider yourself lucky. I’m sure there’s also a lot of people who would consider themselves lucky if they never see one as well.
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