Salamander Crossing Guards & Vernal Pools

2008 Annual Amphibian Migration
By HF Contributing Writer, Sheri Rosenblum

After a winter of indoor activities, this is a great time of year to get outside and explore the local woods, especially if you are interested in the lives of amphibians. The snow is melting and vernal pools are appearing all over the Hilltowns. Frogs and salamanders are still in the woods, thawing out from their winter spent frozen under the snow. They are waiting for the first warm, rainy night of Spring to tell them it’s time to move to their breeding habitat, the vernal pools. Unfortunately, this first activity of Spring often requires crossing roads where most drivers are completely unaware they even exist. This recipe for disaster results in millions of deaths every year, with so many of them completely preventable. To follow is a look at what vernal pools are and how your family can help participate in protecting the amphibians that migrate from the every year.

WHAT IS A VERNAL POOL

A vernal pool is body of water found in upland hardwood forests in places that were previously glaciated (Ten thousand years ago these Hilltowns were covered up to 2 miles deep in ice!). In summer and fall, vernal pools appear simply as depressions in the forest floor, some as diffrent sized puddle, others as large as a couple of acres. But in the late winter, due to snow melt, spring rains and a high water table beneath them, they fill up like ponds and maintain their water generally into summer. The key feature about their formation is that since they are not associated with any running water system and because they dry out periodically, they cannot support fish. Hence, they have become a safe habitat for a variety of wildlife species that rely on these pools for breeding. Imagine this, though… every Spring, the pools fill up, but there is no way to predict when each one will dry out, because that is up to our very fickle weather. So evolution has selected for speed. The adults move to the pools the moment they can. They breed quickly and leave their eggs behind to hatch, grow through their larval forms, then undergo metamorphosis to their terrestrial form. It’s a race against time and often fails. But, adults of the spotted salamander, for example, may live over 20 years. It is supposed that this long life is an evolutionary requirement for a species that may frequently fail to leave behind even one single offspring in a breeding season.

A couple of on-line resources about vernal pools include:

  • New Hampshire Audubon Fact Sheet (link)
  • Vernal Pool Association (link)

DISCOVERING VERNAL POOLS IN THE HILLTOWNS

Vernal pools teem with life but only for a short time. So here is my suggestion. Walk to the biggest hardwood forest area you can find. Take your kids. Take your neighbors kids. Find a vernal pool. Once you have identified a pool, walk back and visit it often until it dries up. Through the Spring, you will see life begin and disappear with countless miracles in between. You will see adults of many different species, matings, egg masses, predation, tadpoles and larval salamanders, growth and development in many different forms. What you learn can change your life and the lives of those you share it with. And maybe the lives of every animal that uses the vernal pools. Their existence is seriously threatened by human building practices that destroy the pools and the surrounding woods where they live the rest of their lives. If you grow to love the frogs (and salamanders, etc.), perhaps you will work to protect them. We all need a healthy ecosystem.

The Old Creamery in Cummington, MA has printouts of maps that use topographical information to suggest probable vernal pond sites in Cummington, MA and Plainfield, MA. (Note the word probable. There are undoubtedly many missing pools and some that don’t exist even though they are on the map.) These came from the public website which you can access by clicking here. – The link goes to the MassGIS website. Use Oliver to obtain the potential vernal pool maps. Once Oliver is launched

  • you sign on as anonymous.
  • To get to the maps use the layers on the upper right, click on Conservation/Recreation,
  • then click on Natural Heritage Data,
  • then click on Potential Vernal Pool (at the bottom of the list).

Note: With dial-up you may not be able to use Oliver very easily. Familiarization with Oliver is a must before attempting to add and view layers unless the user has some basic understanding of GIS and data viewers.

HOW TO PROTECT VERNAL POOLS & NATIVE AMPHIBIANS:

  1. Monitor a road side where you believe salamanders and frogs may be in danger from cars and cross them safely (see below).
  2. If you know of a crossing ‘hot-spot’, share it by e-mailing slrosenblum1@yahoo.com. Someone might want to adopt it on a crossing night. If you plan on adopting it, say that in the e-mail, too.
  3. Ask your friends and neighbors to pass on ‘hot-spot’ information that they have.
  4. Vernal pools are barely protected by insufficient laws. You can help by certifying your pool. Info is available by clicking here.
  5. Find a picture guide to vernal pool inhabitants here.
  6. Tom Tyning, of Berkshire Community College, wrote an excellent book entitled Guide to Amphibians and Reptiles. It covers all our local species. Tom is also available as a public speaker. He is phenomen

HOW DO I HELP SALAMANDERS/FROGS ACROSS THE ROAD?

  1. First and foremost (need I stress this more?) do not become road kill! Even though amphibians are just as important as people, don’t jeopardize your own safety under any circumstances. If you are monitoring a road, stay to the side and look for amphibians leaving the grass/woods at the very edge of the road. Collect them there and wait for a safe time to cross them. If you are stopping your car to pick up and cross an animal in the road, watch out for other traffic.
  2. Ideally, bring a raincoat, flashlight, cotton gloves, and a bucket type container with you.
  3. Lotions, creams, medicines, insecticides that we wear are harmful to amphibian skin, our natural skin chemicals may also be. So only touch them if your skin is clean and wear a glove, cotton is best, if you can. They have chemicals on their skin that make them taste bad to predators (Don’t believe it? Have a taste and see!) So wash your hands thoroughly when you get home.
  4. If you see an animal that needs crossing, note what direction it was headed so you can cross it the same way. If you are at a roadside, collect as many animals as you see in a short time into your bucket and cross them in mass when it’s safe. If you are stopping your car, just pick up what you see and move it in the direction it is headed. The frogs and salamanders may look frail but they are pretty rugged. Don’t worry about hurting them, put a frog or salamander between your cupped hands and bring it across

HOW CAN MY FAMILY GET UPDATES ON WHEN THE MIGRATION NIGHTS ARE HAPPENING IF I WANT TO BE A FROG/SALAMANDER ‘CROSSING GUARD’?

Send an e-mail to slrosenblum1@yahoo.com to get on a weather watching e-mail list. If you are willing to be on a phone tree so you receive (and make) a call on the first big migration night, include your phone number. You will receive a copy of the phone tree and instructions for its use.

WILL IT HELP IF I KEEP A COUNT OF FROGS AND SALAMANDERS I SEE?

Yes. Please! The Community Wetlands Group, based in Williamstown, MA, collects and compiles information about the Spring migration. E-mail slrosenblum1@yahoo.com for data sheets or to answer questions.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Sheri Rosenblum

Sheri is a volunteer and board member at the Center for Rehabilitation of Wildlife (CROW). She aspires to write articles for local publications on diverse subjects relating to the reduction of negative human impact on wildlife and wildlife habitat. She lives in Plainfield, MA. slrosenblum1@yahoo.com

2 Comments

  1. March 23, 2009 at 6:02 am

    Thanks for your questions Sean. Sheri’s reply has been posted here:
    http://hilltownfamilies.wordpress.com/2009/03/23/rosenblum/

  2. Sean Chapel said,

    March 7, 2009 at 9:32 am

    Hi,

    How do we know when a good night will be to see salamanders hatching at a vernal pool?

    Sean Chapel


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