A Shallow Dive into Vernal Pools

By Anita Sanchez

Spring is the time for water. First the ici­cles start to drip. Then the streams and rivers begin to roar, car­ry­ing the snowmelt from upstream. The rock-hard frozen ground becomes a sponge under­foot, and your feet are always wet. Every dirt pile becomes a mud pud­dle, and mud­dy foot­prints fill the kitchen. Then comes a night of warm spring rain.

All this water must go some­where. Some of the rain­drops and snowmelt seep and trick­le into shal­low dips and hol­lows in the for­est floor. Soon the leafy ground is dot­ted with clear, shal­low pools, called ver­nal pools.

Ver­nal pools are a cru­cial part of the for­est ecosys­tem. They might be the size (but not depth) of a swim­ming pool, but more often they’re small­er than a din­ing room table, or even a din­ner plate. But even the tini­est ver­nal pool is a per­fect nurs­ery for amphib­ian babies. The pools pro­vide the essen­tial mois­ture that amphib­ian eggs need to devel­op. Twigs and leaves lin­ing the bot­toms of the pools pro­vide lots of hid­ing spots for new­ly-hatched youngsters. 

And ver­nal pools are ide­al for for­est amphib­ians for one big rea­son: no fish. Fish, even lit­tle sun­fish, are the top dogs in aquat­ic envi­ron­ments like ponds, scoop­ing up most of the eggs and young of frogs and sala­man­ders. Fish-free ponds and pools are rich habi­tats for dozens of tiny species: snails, drag­on­flies, spot­ted tur­tles, fairy shrimp, Amer­i­can toads, and many species of salamanders. 


The minia­ture frogs called spring peep­ers trav­el to these habi­tats to sing their jin­gling sleigh-bell song, seek­ing mates and lay­ing eggs. Red-spot­ted newts jour­ney over­land to the pools, crawl­ing on a slow-mov­ing annu­al migra­tion on legs that are half-an-inch long. Wood frogs, with a black mask like a rac­coon over their face, make the trip, too. And spot­ted sala­man­ders, each look­ing like a piece of enam­eled jew­el­ry — shiny jet black with gold­en spots. All these crea­tures, and many more, depend on these small wet­lands for breeding.

Ver­nal pools are ephemer­al, as fleet­ing as trout lilies and anemones, hepat­i­cas and tril­li­ums – here for a few weeks in spring, van­ished by sum­mer. Some­times the pools fill up again in a wet fall, or in a dry sea­son they might just be a soft mud­dy spot. Because they’re gen­er­al­ly wet­ter than the rest of the for­est, they’re also mini-gar­dens for water-lov­ing ferns and mosses. 

Ver­nal pools are at risk, how­ev­er. Their very exis­tence is endan­gered because peo­ple don’t real­ize that they exist. It’s hard to pro­tect some­thing that isn’t there most of the time. When a road or a build­ing site is pro­posed, no one both­ers about a few mud­dy spots here or there. They’re scraped away by the bull­doz­er and no one knows they’re gone. No humans, that is. Frogs and sala­man­ders often use the same pools for gen­er­a­tion after gen­er­a­tion, per­haps for decades or even centuries. 

So when you ram­ble the spring trails at Lan­dis, keep an eye out for those life-giv­ing lit­tle pools. If we val­ue the call of spring peep­ers, the night cho­rus of the toads and tree frogs, or the scar­let-orange flash of a young newt cross­ing the trail, we need to pro­tect their habitat.

Spring 2024

Volume 42 , Number 1

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