Salamander With a Story

The 5-inch-long salamander floats in a jar of alcohol, oblivious to the controversy careening around the legislative halls of Harrisburg these days. A red ribbon tied around the neck of the jar makes it stand out from the Academy’s other 16,000 amphibian specimens carefully lined up on shelf after shelf.

This little amphibian, called Wehrle’s salamander, is special because it is a type specimen—the specimen on which the description and name of a new species is based. Wehrle’s salamander also is special because a Pennsylvania House member has proposed designating it the state’s Official Amphibian.

Wehrle’s salamander may not end up being Pennsylvania’s Official Amphibian. But this small creature in the Academy’s collection is special. It is the type specimen–the specimen on which the description and name of a new species is based. The label states where it was found and by whom. Photo by Ned Gilmore

But this little guy has stiff competition in the political arena. The state Senate recently voted 47-2 to name the Eastern hellbender the state’s Official Amphibian.

Chances are most of the lawmakers don’t know about the Academy’s connection to Wehrle’s salamander. But Academy Herpetology Collection Manager Ned Gilmore practically can rattle it off the top of his head.

“Henry W. Fowler, the Academy’s curator of Ichthyology, and Emmett Reid Dunn, a Haverford College herpetologist and honorary Academy curator of reptiles and amphibians, published a paper in 1917 in Proceedings of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia describing the new species of salamander,” Gilmore said. They named it for R.W. Wehrle, who collected the specimen at a place called Two Lick Hills in Indiana County, Pa.

Ned Gilmore shows the containing Wehrle’s salamander. The red ribbon designates it as a type specimen. Photo by Carolyn Belardo

Wehrle donated over 700 other reptile and amphibian specimens that he collected to the Academy as well.

There are 22 different salamander species in Pennsylvania. Nine of them are found throughout the state, others only in certain areas, according to Gilmore. Salamanders are key environmental indicators because they are sensitive to changes in the environment such as changes caused by pollution and climate change.

Other than being salamanders, the hellbender and the Wehrle’s don’t share too much in common.

The hellbender is the largest salamander in North America and the third largest in the world. It can grow to 29 inches and weigh up to 5 pounds and lives in water. In Pennsylvania it occurs in the Susquehanna River watershed and watersheds west of the Susquehanna, but not the Delaware Watershed. The state considers the Hellbender of “special concern” because of poor water quality in some areas.

The Eastern hellbender is the largest salamander in North America. Photo by William M Estes

Wehrle’s salamander grows to only 4 or 5 inches long and lives under rocks and deep in crevices in forests across the eastern U.S. They are common in Pennsylvania.

Of course the Academy has hellbenders in the collection, but Wehrle’s salamander will always hold a special place on the shelf.


Post by Carolyn Belardo


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