As It Happens

The new official amphibian of Pennsylvania is the slimy 'snot otter'

Conservation groups hope this will result in greater awareness of the rarely seen creature, whose numbers have been on the decline due to water pollution.

'They're ugly, but they have a charming story,' says high school student Emma Stone

Hellbenders, an aquatic animal that's North America's largest salamander, are endangered in Indiana and four other states and face habitat loss and other pressures in the 11 other mostly Eastern states where they live in swift-flowing, rocky rivers and streams. (Rick Callahan/Associated Press)
Listen5:45

Read Story Transcript

The state of Pennsylvania now has official amphibian representation  — and it's known as the snot otter. 

The House voted overwhelmingly earlier this month to grant the honor to the Eastern hellbender, which is battling declining numbers across much of its range in the United States.

High school student Emma Stone has been fighting for recognition of the Eastern hellbender since 2016. She is the president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation's Student Leadership Council.

She spoke with As It Happens host Carol Off about why the amphibian is so important. 

With the news that the state of Pennsylvania has chosen the Eastern hellbender salamander as its official amphibian, a.k.a. the 'snot otter,' you must be very pleased.

I certainly am. This has been so much hard work over the last three years.

We started this project in 2016 and now it's the spring of 2019 and we finally did it.

And it's so much more than just naming the hellbender the Pennsylvania state amphibian, there's so much more behind it than just a title. 

Why was it important to you? What is it about this creature that you think makes it so worthy?

Most importantly, the hellbender is an indicator species, which means that its presence in water indicates that the water is healthy. So they can't survive in polluted water. They're very pollution intolerant. So we noticed that their populations were declining and that was most likely due to pollution and their water.

Emma Stone, second from the right, is the president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation's Student Leadership Council. She has spent the last three years fighting to get the Eastern hellbender salamander named state amphibian. (Submitted by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation)

How did they get these weird names ... snot otter, lasagna lizard, devil dog? What does it look like?

It can grow to be 29 inches long. It's the largest amphibian in North America.

They have flat heads. They live under large flat rocks. And then they actually have these folds on the sides of their bodies, sometimes referred to as "lasagna flaps."

Those additional folds provide them with more surface area on their skin. And so Hellbenders are pretty interesting because they breathe through their skin. They do have lungs for if they were to go on land, but they rarely go on land.

OK, so that's how it got the name lasagna lizard. How did it get called the snot otter?

They're very slimy, hence the snot in the portion of that name.

They have racked up quite a few names. But the hellbender name is actually from people saying that it looks like it came from hell. It's really not attractive to look at. 

So in addition to being butt ugly, they are very picky about where they live. 

They will only survive in very fast moving, cold waters.

And they cannot survive with any pollution. So not only does it need to be a fast and cold moving stream but it needs to be free of pollution. 

Wow. I'm with the lasagna lizard on this one, but that must mean they're very rare.

At this point, yes they are. Their populations have declined significantly even just in the last 15 years. 

But there are a lot of breeding centers throughout Pennsylvania and New York to rehabilitate the hellbender population.

Ned S. Gilmore, collections manager of vertebrate zoology, shows a hellbender salamander in the collection at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia. (Alex Brandon/Associated Press )

I understand they're also quite elusive. So have you actually ever seen one?

I have — not in the wild, but at these rehabilitation, repopulation facilities. I have seen and felt them.

And seeing them up close, I mean sure, they're ugly, but they have a charming story. Definitely something that I'm proud to name the state amphibian.
 
And do they feel slimy? 

They do, yes. They're very very slippery. It's difficult to get a grip on them.

Having this kind of recognition, what does it actually do for them? 

Our hope is that with all of the support and recognition of the hellbender and awareness of the hellbender, that people are going to have an understanding of what they are. 

For me, I didn't even know what a hellbender was in 2015. I'm sure that many other people don't know what a hellbender is. 

Written by Alison Broverman. Produced by Sarah Jackson. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.