Pennsylvania is home to an eastern North American giant and entirely aquatic salamander known as the Eastern Hellbender, otherwise called the Cryptobranchus alleganiensis. This magnificent creature grows to roughly 2 feet in length while remaining nearly flat as a pancake.
These cryptic animals rest by day under the flat rocks found within the cold, clean waters of creeks and rivers. The well-oxygenated water is important for their eggs, which are guarded and tended by the male of the species. Clean water is important for sustaining invertebrate prey, especially crayfish.
Here in Pennsylvania, this species of salamander is protected. Few specimens exist in Pennsylvania museums, although not for reasons of rarity. Over the years, little effort has been made to track the population counts of the Eastern Hellbender.
Beginning in the early 1980s, then high school teacher, Eugene Wingert, visited a 100-meter section of Sherman’s Creek in Perry County. There, he found salamanders to be abundant, often observing eight to 10 individuals during a single visit. On June 1, 1991, Wingert collected four adult Eastern Hellbenders and donated them to the Zoology and Botany collections of The State Museum of Pennsylvania, where they remain to this day. The salamanders of Sherman’s Creek continued to be seen in abundance, until 1996 when suddenly no more of the Eastern Hellbenders were observed. Wingert is not certain why this population of salamanders suddenly disappeared. Eventually, siltification overtook the section of the creek, and to this day, that stretch and beyond remains degraded.
We remain grateful for the thoughtful collection of those four Eastern Hellbenders when Wingert knew the population to be robust. Now, these four specimens are the sole proof of the very existence of this awesome and vanishing member of one of Pennsylvania’s aquatic communities.
This Pennsylvania Treasure was written by Dr. Walter Meshaka, Senior Curator of Zoology and Botany at The State Museum of Pennsylvania.
About Pennsylvania Treasures:
The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission houses artifacts hailing from all eras of the commonwealth’s past. These objects represent Pennsylvania arts, culture, history, sciences, business and agriculture. PHMC curators continue to research the stories behind many of these rarely exhibited artifacts and works of art. We are sharing these Pennsylvania Treasures with the public through weekly updates.