Meet Pennsylvania's New Official Amphibian, The Snot Otter


Stephen Luntz

Stephen has a science degree with a major in physics, an arts degree with majors in English Literature and History and Philosophy of Science and a Graduate Diploma in Science Communication.

Freelance Writer


Finally, the recognition I deserve.  Jay Ondreicka/Shutterstock 

When you think about it, there is something a little odd about having an official state bird, flower, or gemstone. Does that make all the others unofficial? So it's just possible Pennsylvania elected representatives were having a bit of fun when they voted overwhelmingly to make the Eastern hellbender salamander (Cryptobranchus alleganiensis) the state's official amphibian.

No doubt salamanders consider other salamanders lovely beyond compare, but the general human response can be seen in the nicknames we have given it, including snot otter, devil dog, and lasagna lizard.


Still, most Pennsylvania reps apparently believe beauty is on the inside, voting 191-6 to make the status official. We hope that those six (all Republican) opponents are having a good long look at themselves in the mirror.

Fun as it might be to give prominence to a mocked creature, the decision has a motivation. Environmentalists believe it is easier to get support to save species with official status – losing a faunal emblem means losing a bit of the state. So a status like this can lay the foundations for future rescue plans. One can debate how much difference this really makes, but when doing nothing risks the permanent erasure of an animal or plant from the book of life, every bit helps.

The idea goes along with the one, also featuring the hellbender, of sending condoms themed around endangered species to members of the US Senate.

It's a much happier ending than the one reported by John Oliver, where a group of school children, as part of a civics class, lobbied the New Hampshire legislature to make the red tail hawk the official state raptor. The project was undertaken to teach the students how laws are made, but spoilsport representatives voted the idea down.


The hellbender's claim to this status does not just rest on it being classified on the IUCN's Red List as “near threatened”, although it is. It's the largest salamander in the Americas, growing to 74 centimeters (2.5 feet) and has survived at least 65 million years, making it the only living member of its genus. Its extreme sensitivity to pollution and silt is why it is in trouble, but also makes it a useful indicator for those trying to track the health of waterways. Its native habitat covers not just Pennsylvania, but locations from New York to Georgia, although it is now considered endangered in several of states.

The recognition rewards the two-year campaign by Chesapeake Bay Foundation. Since they attribute its decline to the loss of trees from riverbanks, the Foundation hopes recognition will inspire replanting projects that will benefit numerous other species, official or not.


A hellbender on display at the Smithsonian Museum. Ns4571a cc-by-4.0