JAMESTOWN – The Audubon Community Nature Center has gained two new critters, and if you like amphibians, you should be very excited.
Called “Eastern Hellbenders,” the new animals are the largest species of salamander in North America. The creatures are named ‘Oneka,’ which means ‘water,’ and ‘Tweeg’, which means ‘Hellbender,’ in the Seneca language.
Eastern Hellbenders can grow up to 29 inches in length and live for 25 to 30 years in the wild. They are generally solitary creatures and spend the large majority of their time underwater, often inhabiting spaces beneath rocks.
The animals are also known as “snot otters,” “devil dogs,” “lasagna lizards,” and “Allegheny alligators”. They were recently named the state amphibians of Pennsylvania.
“I was so intrigued by hellbenders when I first moved back to Western New York,” said Audubon Executive Director Leigh Rovegno. “I had no idea they were found locally, nor that they were so big. I was lucky enough to be able to see them in the wild on an Audubon Exclusive excursion in 2019. I also love that they have been identified as the Pennsylvania state amphibian. We are so fortunate to have them here at the Nature Center for visitors to enjoy.”
Oneka and Tweeg were born in 2009 at the Buffalo Zoo. They came to ACNC as part of the “Hellbender Head-Start Program,” which is run by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. Their goal is to help bring back the salamanders’ numbers to where they originally were, after seeing them dip over past years.
The program works by taking Hellbender eggs from the wild and having them hatch at the Buffalo and Bronx Zoos, along with the Seneca Nation of Indians Fish and Wildlife Department Hellbender Rearing Facility. This way, professionals can look after them and make sure they get the proper care to survive into adulthood.
To see the newest additions to Audubon, you can take a trip to the center on Mondays through Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., and Sundays from 1 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. Admission is by donation only through the end of July, but starting in August admission fees for non-members will resume.