The waterfall gushed over the cliff and crashed to the pool below before continuing its way downstream. Casting off my hiking boots on a nearby rock in the Great Smoky Mountains, I waded into the shallows. It was there, in the cool, clear waterbed, that I spotted it.
The hellbender is a salamander whose sheer awesomeness in size and shape is matched only by the awesomeness of its name. It can grow to some two feet in length, making it the largest amphibian in North America. And if you think its proper name is off-putting, consider some of its many nicknames, which sound like insults exchanged in a schoolyard: Mud Devil, Snot Otter, Lasagna Lizard, Grampus.
For those who don’t subscribe to Salamander Digest or may be living under their own rock, the hellbender has recently been named Pennsylvania’s official state amphibian. Gov. Tom Wolf signed it into law this past spring—and forever more, elementary students will file away the hellbender alongside state trivia staples like the ruffed grouse and the firefly (our state bird and insect, respectively). The idea behind its official recognition is to raise awareness about the need to protect our waterways. As an amphibian, the hellbender absorbs oxygen from the water, and pollution has had a major impact on the decline of 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 the Upper Darby School District spearheaded the campaign to designate the firefly as our state insect. (It seems kids are always doing cool stuff like that. It’s a shame they ever grow up.)
It was in Upper Darby 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’s now Drexelbrook Catering & Special Event Center. For boys in the mid-1980s, it might as well have been the wilds of Alaska. My brothers routinely returned home 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.
For my third-grade science project, our father joined us at Darby Creek and we collected a dozen or so salamanders, which lived in a 10-gallon aquarium tank in my room. They made a guest appearance at school, earned me an “A” on my project and were soon evicted.
Today, I live a stone’s throw from the Brandywine River, my own kids’ Darby Creek. Their noble quest for salamanders has grown increasingly difficult as populations rapidly decline with both the loss of habitat and pollution. Here’s hoping the hellbender—now that its working for the state—has other plans.
West Chester’s Michael T. Dolan likes to write about more than hellbenders. Check out www.michaeltdolan.com.