In New York and elsewhere, mud puppies matter

Quick now, what’s the official amphibian for New York state? Don’t know? Don’t feel bad, because I didn’t know either – until I read an article about the hellbender, or mud puppy, being designated by the Pennsylvania State Senate as the official amphibian for the Keystone State. So I had to look it up.

The move by the Senate to name the hellbender (mud puppy) as the official state amphibian was applauded by members of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation because the Eastern hellbender/mud puppy is a natural indicator of clean water. “I could not think of a better symbol for Pennsylvania, with all the waterways that we have and the emphasis we place on clean water, than to have the hellbender as a symbol that we could use throughout the state to promote clean water,” said Senator Gene Yaw (R-23).

In case you’ve never seen or encountered a hellbender, it’s not surprising. The Hellbender was listed as a special concern species of New York state in 1983; it’s listed as endangered in Maryland, Ohio, Illinois and Indiana, and is considered a threatened species in Alabama. According to the DEC, in New York state the hellbender is found solely in the Susquehanna and Allegheny River drainages, including their associated tributaries. Hellbenders prefer swift-running, well-oxygenated, unpolluted streams and rivers. An important physical characteristic of these habitats is the presence of riffle areas and abundant large flat rocks, logs or boards which are used for cover and nesting sites. It was at one of these preferred locations I encountered my first one.

In high school, my friends and I fished the Susquehanna river for smallmouth bass, but before beginning to fish we first had to catch some bait. Stone cats or hellgrammites were the bait of choice and we caught them with our hands by feeling under flat rocks in shallow water along the water’s edge. I’ll never forget the time I thought I had a large stone cat trapped between my cupped hands and a small flat rock. Uncovering the rock to put what I thought was a stone cat into my bait bucket, I nearly had a heart attack when I saw the creature in my hands. It was a mud puppy and it was something I’d never seen before. Mud puppies are harmless creatures to be sure, but try telling that to a 16-year-old who had never seen one. I couldn’t drop the stone or the creature fast enough. Needless to say, I was a little concerned about feeling blindly under rocks after that.

Sadly, hellbenders are in a state of decline not only in Pennsylvania but New York as well. Scientists have suggested reasons for this apparent decline are pollution of the aquatic habitat; the elimination of critical riffles, which lowers the dissolved oxygen in the water because of damming of rivers and streams; the siltation of streams and rivers resulting from agricultural practices; and construction work such as bridge building and road work. An additional problem is the unintentional or intentional and senseless killing by fishermen who accidentally catch hellbenders and erroneously fear that they are venomous.

Hellbenders are considered the canary in the coal mine and are true indicators of the quality of our rivers and streams. Clean water is important for all of us as well as for those creatures that live in it and if we don’t act on making our waterways as clean as they can be, it diminishes us in some way, and we all suffer it.

Oh, yes. I almost forgot. The official New York state amphibian is the wood frog. Who knew?

Categories: New York – Mike Raykovicz

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