(The Center Square) – Pennsylvania will have a new specialty license plate celebrating the state amphibian — the eastern hellbender, America’s largest salamander.
Though most Pennsylvanians won’t encounter the reclusive and skittish creature in the wild, the hellbender became a state symbol in 2019. It can grow up to two feet and lives under rocks and boulders in clean, clear waters.
“It’s become a really incredible ambassador for water quality and is an indicator of ecosystem health in the commonwealth,” Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission Executive Director Tim Shaeffer said during a Monday press conference. “What we hope that the hellbender does is make natural resource conservation relevant to people in Pennsylvania.”
The hellbender plate will join the river otter on PennDOT’s special fund registration plate; every purchase sends $15 to the Wild Resource Conservation Fund to support research and conservation efforts.
Hellbenders are present in 32 of the commonwealth’s 67 counties and can live up to 30 years in the wild. They range throughout the Appalachians and as far west as Illinois and Missouri. It’s also known as the mud devil, devil dog, and snot otter.
Rebecca Bowen, division chief of conservation science and ecological resources at the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, noted that they tend to be found more in the western parts of the state in larger rivers like the Allegheny and Ohio.
“Where it’s present, it’s an indicator of good, healthy habitat…and that benefits us too,” Bowen said. “It’s kind of like you can reach people through sort of a novelty like wow, there’s this interesting, cool critter and learning a little bit more about it can show people the importance of the ecosystem as a greater whole.”
Their lack of presence is also noteworthy. If they disappear, the water quality is at risk.
“It serves as that proverbial canary in the coal mine,” Bowen said.
The hellbender remains a species of concern among a number of other amphibians. Its numbers have declined in Pennsylvania due water quality declines and competition from invasive species like the rusty crayfish, as well as game fish like the walleye and brown trout, according to the Pennsylvania Natural Heritage Program.
“I remember seeing them when I was growing up,” Sen. Gene Yaw, R-Williamsport, said. “I don’t care how you cut it, they’re ugly … but they are really unique creatures.”
Yaw got involved after a group of youths from the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s Student Leadership Council lobbied him to push for the salamander to become the state amphibian.
For motorists interested in a hellbender plate, they can fill out an application through PennDOT.