Get outside, Family!

Get outside, Family!

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Identifying creatures in vernal pools

Fairy Shrimp in action. Credit: Jack Ray
We’re still trying to figure out if the ponds we are visiting are true vernal pools, and Betsy Leppo, Zoologist with the Pennsylvania Natural Heritage Program, continues to be a great help. When I told her I’m not finding much sign of life around the ponds we’ve been searching, she said not to give up hope: It may take a few years of observation, through heavy rains and dry springs, to figure out what is happening at a location.

In the meantime, here are some more tips for spotting wildlife at a vernal pool:

  •     Look for egg masses early in the season, from around mid-March to mid-April. They shouldn’t be too tough to spot in small and unvegetated vernal ponds, which offer clear views of the entire pool, Leppo says. We might have to look around a bit in  pools with a lot of vegetation.   
“Wood Frogs and Spotted Salamanders (the two most common vernal pool indicator amphibians) have large egg masses that are usually floating at or near the surface of the pool,” Leppo says. She suggests checking out this handy guide for identifying different species by their eggs. 

  • By May, many of the larvae have hatched, and some egg masses, like that of the Wood Frog, have fallen apart. But that doesn't mean there aren't interesting things to find. Leppo says we still might be able to locate egg remnants of the Spotted Salamander. “The egg matrix is very durable,” she says.

 The smaller long, thin creatures are mosquito larvae, and the larger
fluttery ones are Fairy Shrimp. Credit: Betsy Leppo

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Tips for protecting vernal pools

Vernal pools are rare but important habitats to many species of amphibian, reptile, crustaceans and insects. They require our protection, as they are under threat from development, motor vehicles, lawn chemicals and other human activity. So should curious parents and their children stay out of them?

It’s a question I posed to Betsy Leppo, Zoologist with the Pennsylvania Natural Heritage Program. My son and I had been splashing through mud and water around a small pool in the woods, looking for frog and salamander eggs. I want him to explore these places, so that he can learn about them and to value them. But I don’t want to wreck them.

It turns out there is plenty of damage we might accidentally inflict on a wetland  -- killer fungus and sunscreen contamination, among others. But if we take a few easy steps to be careful, it’s absolutely okay to explore, Leppo assures me.

 “I think it’s great to take kids out to vernal pool so they can learn about them,” Leppo says. Part of the learning experience can be “just being aware of the potential impacts you can have.”
It’s a great teachable moment. Here’s how to handle things gently, here’s how to handle an animal carefully. They have to be taught that. It’s a great chance to teach kids how to approach wildlife,” she says.  It’s also an opportunity to help children to get past fears and squeamishness.

Here’s what we need to do to help protect the vernal pools:

Be mindful. Leppo advises to take care where you are stepping to avoid egg masses and creatures in the water. It’s best to remain on the edges of a pond and avoid stirring up the mud too much.

Rinse your hands. Antibiotic soap and sunscreen can be deadly to developing creatures, so avoid these before heading into the water. If you wash your hands, rinse them thoroughly.

Clean your gear. There are two diseases that are devastating wetland animals in some places around the country. They are Ranavirus and Chytrid fungus. (Read more about these diseases here.) Although they aren’t known to be widespread problems in Pennsylvania, they are a concern. Leppo says the way to avoid spreading disease is to wash gear between uses.
The other benefit of washing gear is to avoid spreading invasive plants like Japanese knotweed, reed canary grass, mile-a-minute, purple loosestrife and others, Leppo adds. Seeds can get on our boots just from walking through a yard. She recommends scrubbing all mud off of boots, nets, buckets and the like in a tub of soapy water and rinsing them clean. Conservation professionals use farm-grade antibacterial soap, which can be found at farm supply stores.

Monday, May 9, 2016

Meet a Vernal Pool

I’ve been obsessed with finding vernal pools, those mysterious ponds that appear in early spring where salamanders, frogs and many other critters lay their eggs. Why does this excite me? I’m a nature geek, of course. The other reason is that it’s another way to get my kids just a little more interested in what’s going on outdoors.
Late winter hike -- Will we find a vernal pool?

I’m constantly saying things to my boys like, “Do you hear that jingling sound? It’s the Spring Peepers!”, and we’ve muddied a lot of shoes walking around ponds looking for eggs. I got really excited when my younger son and I went exploring in the woods across from the school bus stop and realized we were ankle deep in water. I was sure we’d found a vernal pool.

But because I wasn’t 100 percent sure, and I like to be accurate, I went looking for a guide. I found one in Betsy Leppo, zoologist with the Pennsylvania Natural Heritage Program, who created this webinar for the Penn State Extension. It gives a detailed description of species, geology, vegetation and soil of vernal pools, and how to protect them. More for conservation professionals than nature moms, the presentation left me with a few questions. So I contacted Leppo and she kindly agreed to help.

What fascinates me about vernal pools or ponds is that they appear like magic in spots that may be bone dry by late summer, or at least much less wet. They are created from ice melt and rains, Leppo explained, and a true vernal pool has no permanent inlet or outlet of water. They can be found in a land depression in the middle of the woods, as part of a swamp or marsh, among small shrubs or in a field.

A vernal pool can be as small as “little leafy puddles you can jump across,” Leppo says, or “large wetland thickets where you can easily fill your hip waders.” 

These conditions mean there are no fish, making it a great place for amphibians, reptiles and other creatures to lay eggs without fear their babies will be gobbled up. Many species depend upon these unique waters, in fact. Some salamanders and frogs return to the same vernal pool from which they hatched.

In late winter, creatures begin emerging from the nearby woodlands where they spend the rest of their adult lives, sometimes crossing snow and ice to arrive at a pond to breed. In March and April – long before leaves are on the trees and much at all is sprouting from the ground -- a vernal pool is a busy amphibian baby nursery.

Taking a mud break. 
So how do we know when we’ve found a vernal pool? Leppo says the sure way is to locate one of the species that breed almost exclusively in these waters. In Pennsylvania, that would be four types of mole salamanders, as well as the Eastern Spadefoot frog, the Wood Frog and two crustaceans – fairy shrimp and clam shrimp.

Shrimp?! I had no idea there was anything that could be called a shrimp in the water around here! And I’m not at all sure how to identify species of salamander or frog. First you have to find a salamander or frog, which can pretty hard to do. This is where a field guide is really handy, especially an online guide that also features sound clips of frog mating calls, like

There are many other animals that live around and breed in vernal pools, including species of toad, turtle, frog and newt. The noisy Spring Peeper is another one. Many insects and tiny crustraceans tend to thrive in these waters, creating what Leppo calls a “vernal pool soup” that feeds the larger animals as they develop.  

My original hope for a vernal pool – the puddle across from the bus stop – turned out to have been only a puddle that had pretty much dried up in a few days, which isn’t long enough for creatures to hatch and grow. A nearby marsh seemed like another good possibility. We did find squirmy black mosquito babies and other teeny spots swimming around. And lots of snails. But no tadpoles yet.
Not sure what this is, but it looks cool.

We will keep looking. At the very least, we are having fun squishing around in the mud.

More Vernal Pool Resources:
Pennsylvania Natural Heritage Program