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What the hellbender? Why Pa. chose a state amphibian and other symbols you don’t know about (bug, drink, dog, etc.)

Legislators don’t grant such an honor often in Pennsylvania. Before the amphibian, lawmakers hadn’t designated a state symbol since the state fossil.

A person in a hellbender costume with, from left to right, Sen. Mike Folmer (R., Lebanon); Sen. Gene Yaw (R., Lycoming); and Sen. John Gordner (R., Columbia), at the State Capitol for a bill signing to make the Eastern hellbender the state amphibian.
A person in a hellbender costume with, from left to right, Sen. Mike Folmer (R., Lebanon); Sen. Gene Yaw (R., Lycoming); and Sen. John Gordner (R., Columbia), at the State Capitol for a bill signing to make the Eastern hellbender the state amphibian.Read moreAngela Couloumbis, Staff Writer

In an honor bestowed this week on a mucus-covered, wrinkled-skin salamander with a flat body and beady little eyes, Bob McSwaim sees new hope in his campaign for the Slinky.

For five years, the retired high school math teacher has lobbied for the Slinky — made in Hollidaysburg, a suburb of Altoona in central Pennsylvania — to become Pennsylvania’s state toy. Before him, in the early 2000s, several state lawmakers tried to get their colleagues to pass a bill granting the designation to the Slinky, which is in the National Toy Hall of Fame.

Pennsylvania still doesn’t have a state toy. But this month, it got a state amphibian — the Eastern hellbender.

“Heck, what’s going on here?" Swaim said. “I thought they were only into serious stuff, and that’s why they didn’t want a state toy.”

Swaim said his fight is about more than a plaything. He seeks to honor Betty James, who named the toy her husband created, and revived and grew the company. The Eastern hellbender’s rise to state amphibian has persuaded him not to give up on the Slinky, he said.

Pennsylvania has a state flower, plant, and tree. It has both a state steam locomotive and a state electric locomotive.

Legislators don’t grant such exalted honor often. Before the amphibian, lawmakers hadn’t designated a state symbol since the state fossil — Phacops rana, an extinct water animal no longer than a few inches — in December 1988.

Republican State Sen. Judy Ward — she often identifies herself by saying, "I’m from Hollidaysburg, home of the Slinky” — will settle for a state resolution in November to commemorate the toy.

Swaim said Pennsylvania could use a lot more state symbols to draw attention to the commonwealth.

“Keep on going,” Swaim said. "Don’t stop with the state amphibian.”

What were some reactions to the hellbender’s designation?

The Commonwealth Foundation praised the “spirit of bipartisan cooperation” that gave Pennsylvania a state amphibian.

“In the months ahead, we hope lawmakers and the governor come together with just as much enthusiasm on bipartisan issues like criminal justice reform and expanding education opportunity for low-income kids,” Nathan Benefield, vice president and chief operating officer, said in a statement.

Gov. Tom Wolf and other politicians said choosing this state amphibian represents a commitment to clean water. Hellbenders can live only in unspoiled water, so their presence indicates the health of streams.

Hellbenders are the largest North American salamanders, growing up to 29 inches and weighing up to five pounds. They spend most of their days under rocks.

“They’re really cryptic and elusive,” said Jeniffer Schwartz, a junior biology major at Lycoming College and an intern at its Clean Water Institute, which advocated for the hellbender. “I’d say they’re not very pretty.”

A few state legislators who voted against the hellbender didn’t see the point in naming a state amphibian. The House voted 191-6 and the Senate voted 48-1 in its favor.

What does being a state symbol mean?

“Any time you have something like this, where it’s a state something, you’re going to raise awareness,” said Melvin Zimmerman, director of the Clean Water Institute, which helped get the designation for the hellbender. The amphibian’s numbers are in decline in parts of the United States.

The campaign began with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s student leadership council. Students are often driving forces behind state designations.

State symbols also show what places value. Take milk, Pennsylvania’s state beverage since 1982.

Even with the dairy downturn of the last few years — Pennsylvania lost 370 dairy farms last year — dairy represents the largest segment of the state’s agriculture industry, said Mark O’Neill, spokesperson for the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau.

“We think that designation actually is important, and it stands for what our farmers help produce," he said. “It really signifies the importance of Pennsylvania’s dairy industry and the impact it has on rural communities, as well as the state’s economy."

State symbols, as the name suggests, also help represent the state to outsiders. When Pope Francis flew into Philadelphia in 2015, a retired city police officer and his family welcomed the pontiff with a mountain laurel — the state flower.

What doesn’t being a state symbol mean?

"It doesn’t mean anything, really. There are no protections that come with being the state symbol,” said Michael Skvarla, director of the insect identification lab at Pennsylvania State University.

State designations are probably more about popularity than protecting endangered species, said State Game Warden Dustin Stoner at the Pennsylvania Game Commission.

For example, the firefly is the state insect. "People have lots of interactions with them as children,” Skvarla said. “Even people who are often grossed out by insects in general like fireflies.”

The whitetail deer is Pennsylvania’s state animal and the brook trout is the state fish, so obviously those designations don’t mean they can’t be hunted. Same goes for the state game bird, the ruffed grouse.

The animals’ populations are fairly healthy — in the case of deer, sometimes too healthy — so the state just keeps an eye on the species and regulates how many can be hunted, Stoner said.

What are Pennsylvania’s state symbols?

State Game Bird: Ruffed grouse

Date designated: June 22, 1931

State Tree: Hemlock

Date designated: June 23, 1931

State Flower: Mountain laurel

Date designated: May 5, 1933

State Animal: Whitetail deer

Date designated: Oct. 2, 1959

State Dog: Great Dane

Date designated: Aug. 15, 1965

State Fish: Brook trout

Date designated: March 9, 1970

State Insect: Firefly

Date designated: April 10, 1974

State Beverage: Milk

Date designated: April 29, 1982

State Plant: Penngift Crownvetch

Date designated: June 17, 1982

State Steam Locomotive: Pennsylvania Railroad K4

Date designated: Dec. 18, 1987

State Electric Locomotive: Pennsylvania Railroad GG1 Locomotive No. 4859

Date designated: Dec. 18, 1987

State Ship: U.S. Brig Niagara

Date designated: May 26, 1988

State Fossil: Phacops rana (small water animal)

Date designated: Dec. 5, 1988

State Amphibian: Eastern hellbender

Date designated: April 23, 2019