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.