Earthwork Wilderness Survival Training School | 413-340-1161

Exploring a Vernal Pool

By Arianna & Frank Grindrod

Yellow Spotted Salamander 1

Yellow Spotted Salamander

Spring is in the air; in the yellow spotted salamander’s feet marching across the snow; in the trill of the Spring Peeper announcing his space and his availability as a mate; and the quiet patience of the Fairy Shrimp waiting between the mud and ice for their home to thaw.

What Is a Vernal Pool?

A vernal pool is a small woodland wetland that is created by melting snow in an earthen depression which has no inlet or outlet; basically a “wicked big puddle”. These “puddles” are nurseries for several species including mole salamanders such as the yellow-spotted salamander, wood frogs, spring peepers, fairy shrimp, and fingernail clams. Vernal pools are usually temporary and dry up as the season progresses. For the animals who them as a nursery, it is essentially a race against time for the babies to grow up enough to be out the pool before the water is gone. Some pools are semi-permanent but that is not a guarantee so ether way, the salamanders and frogs are crawling or hopping away come summer. The invertebrates, those who cannot fly or crawl away, but are obligate to the pools such as the fingernail clams and fairy shrimp must squiggle down into the mud and wait until next spring to emerge again.

Who Might you Meet at a Vernal Pool?

Mole salamanders live underground which is why you don’t tend to see them any other time of year…except for the Marbled Salamander who lays her eggs in the fall in autumnal/vernal pools. She hoovers over her eggs until the rains fall and then she leaves them. These little ones are the first to hatch and will eat other species of mole salamander eggs in the spring when the pool has then been filled with Jefferson, Yellow-Spotted and Blue-Spotted Salamander eggs. All mole salamander species eat invertebrates and will use mole-excavated tunnels, hence why they are called mole salamanders. In the Spring, when the first rains tickle the ground and when above ground temperature reach 40 degrees Fahrenheit, the Yellow-Spotted, Blue-Spotted, and Jefferson all come on down to their home pools. The males arrive first, forming what is called “congress”, a group of salamanders. They may travel up to a half mile away from their upland forest underground homes to mate in these vernal pools. After they mate they return to their woodland homes. Watch for them on rainy spring evenings as they cross the road.

Spring Peeper in driveway

Spring Peeper

If you live near a vernal pool you may hear a din of sound that is caused by two vernal pool visitors – the Wood Frog and the Spring Peeper. The Wood Frog is one of our black-masked bandits (can you guess the other two? One is a mammal and the other is bird.); a woodland, territorial amphibian that has a very distinctive call – the singing males, who are calling out to alert everyone in the vicinity that this is their space make a “qua-ack” sound, vaguely reminiscent of duck. The Spring Peeper is a very tiny tree frog who bears an “X” on his/her back. The callings males make a high-pitched “ree-deep” sound.

Vernal Pool Fairy Shrimp

Fairy Shrimp

There are a host of invertebrates that you can find in a vernal pool – from Predaceous Diving Beetles and Whirligig Beetles to Damselflies to Backswimmers and Water Boatmen to Mayflies to Amphipods, Isopods, Daphnia and Copepods to Fairy Shrimp to Fingernail Clams to Caddisfly larvae. These are species worth getting down and dirty with as each sport their own unique adaptations of locomotion, feeding and general survival. For example, Whirligigs have split eyes so they can see up and down at the same time; handy when watching for predators. Mayflies have fanlike gills on their abdomen to take in oxygen from the water. Predaceous Diving Beetles have their own scuba gear so to speak; they carry an air bubble at the base of their abdomen as they swim through the water. Caddisfly larvae make their mobile homes from debris they find in the pool and their silk. They have a little hook on the end of their abdomen so they really do hitch up to their home and crawl along the bottom of the pool. They keeps their soft bodies protected and camouflaged.

Exploring a Vernal Pool

Vernal Pool 2 2004You and your youngster can gently explore these nurseries using a simple dip net and a holding pan. Fill the pan with water from the pool being careful to obtain the clearest water so that your temporary holding container is not muddy. Now gently slide your net through the pool and along the edges to catch a critter. Gently put it in the pan using a plastic spoon. If you have a magnifying lens and an identification guide book so much the better. Watch how the creature moves. It is recommended not to place predators and prey species in the same holding container at the same time else you will be setting the stage for the prey to be on the losing side of the chase. Please also do NOT collect eggs as this action may destroy the embryos.

When you are through studying these amazing creatures please return them to their home in the pool. To emphasize to your young naturalist the importance of respecting wildlife you can end with a simple “repeat-after-me” releasing ceremony such as this one that I (Arianna) learned from Kim Noyes at Northfield Mountain Environmental and Recreation Center many years ago.

“Run away, crawl away, swim away, hop! You are free to go. I am not going to stop you from living your life. You deserve to be free; but thank you for spending this time with me.”

Suggested Field Guide: A Guide to the Animals of Vernal Pools by Leo Kenny & Matthew Burne.

Amphibian Etiquette
Amphibians, including frogs, toads and salamanders, breathe through their skin. Their skin is very sensitive to many things (salt, chemical toxins, soap, bug repellant, chlorine in our drinking water, sunscreen, etc.) When handling our wild friends, please remember to create a micro-habitat between you and them. Create this layer by putting your hands in their water source (vernal pool, pond, bog, stream, etc.) if they are aquatic or by using soil and leaves if they are terrestrial. When holding an amphibian make sure you keep them low to the ground and be mindful that the temperature of your hands can raise theirs, and this can create stress for them. Always return them where you found them. Or, if you are helping them cross a road, always remember their direction of travel and place them on the proper side of the road according to their direction of travel.

How Are We Connected?

by Arianna and Frank Grindrod

John Muir observed, “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.” Let us take a moment to shift out of the Nature-Culture dichotomy paradigm and recognize that humans are part of Nature and that as a very young specie we have much to learn from our co-habitants.

Life is interwoven, interconnected, interdependent. We humans need what the land has to offer, just as other species do. In a very real sense, we all need one another. Humans would not exist without plants and other animals. We need them for food, resources, companionship.

In exploring our interdependencies, let’s see how many connections we can see in the web of life right here in our beautiful home of Western Massachusetts.

Take a look in the mirror. There is you. You are one, whole being. But wait, there are several systems within you, as within all multi-celled beings, that help to keep you alive and functioning. One example is the digestive system. In the intestines are bacteria. Intestinal bacteria are helpful to the elimination process. Yes breaking down the waste for pooping is important. This is a “nested system”; a whole within a whole, as a bacterium is a whole being in and of itself. Review another nested system, your family; several whole beings existing together and relying on one another for their wellbeing. Consider, why do your parents cook for you? What is their motivation? Parents, think about this? Why do you care? Why do you feed your children? Caring is innate trait in many mammals. A baby cries, a pup yips, a kitten mews and there a “switch” in the adult’s brain that turns on in a need to provide, to nurture, to nourish. Extend this nested system into the community realm. You may not always LOVE your neighbors, however, there are times when you may rely on them. Relationships are about discovering ways to live in a habitat together; helping one another to get through tough times and celebrating one another in triumphant moments. Extend outwards into the environment and observe your wild neighbors…no, not the humans down the street throwing a party, the other animals; raccoon, beaver, dragonfly, ant, hawk, sparrow, minnow, trout, toad, salamander, turtle, snake. Take a moment to think about how you are part of the habitat you inhabit. What connections in your life do you notice between your family, your friends, your school environment, the foods you eat, the water you drink, the wild neighbors you see and affect? At each level, from the body to the family to the community to the environment, there are a plethora of interactions and though each system is whole in and of itself, it is also interdependent with other systems.

As educators and parents we can encourage our youth to not only notice and observe these connections but also to celebrate them. As children feel their connectedness to life around them, they are empowered to more actively participate in living in agreement with the environment in which they live. When does a child feel empathy? What was that first moment, when you remember your heart reaching out? Was it a neighbor who just dropped his ice cream on the pavement; a pet whimpering for attention; a wriggling worm you held in the garden; a dead raccoon you saw on the side of the road; a deer and fawn who stumbled upon you in the woods before racing off the path?

There are several engaging ways to access this concept of interdependence with children. The following are a few fun activities to explore with your child or students.

Ravens & Wolves, Crows & Coyotes: Crows and ravens recognize coyotes and wolves as “carcass openers” (yes, like a can opener) and will actually caw in these predators to a prey or a dead animal. The canines recognize the corvids cawing and will pursue to the food and consume it. The corvids know that eventually they will have their turn at the carcass and get a meal too. Wolf researchers observed the behavior and thought it curious as to why two very different species, a bird and a mammal, would take advantage of each other’s skills and work together. But the observations do not end there. These corvids and canines will also play tag with one another; chasing each other back and forth. Really, play tag with a known predator with sharp teeth? Yes! So here is the game. Team up in pairs. Decide who will be the crow (or raven) and who will be the coyote (or wolf). As this game can be played between a parent and child or a classroom of students, it is very easy to adapt. To start, the crows run down the field and pretend they have found some delicious dead deer. Crows will then caw to the coyotes and coyotes, run down to the crows, pretend to eat their fill of the deer and then the crow will tag a coyote. The coyote will then chase that crow and tag them and then the crow will turn around and chase and tag the coyote and so on. When partners are pooped out, the crows can then eat their fill. The parent or teacher can then discuss the dynamics between these two incredible wild neighbors.

The Special Biology of Lichen: Crows and coyotes are interdependent; at the same time they don’t need each other. They can hunt and forage on their own. Lichen on the other hand are mutualistic; they do need each other. Lichens are composite, symbiotic organisms made up from members of as many as three kingdoms. And they live their lives so close, in such a cooperative form, that scientists needed a name to describe them, hence, lichen. The dominant partner is a fungus. Fungi are incapable of making their own food. They usually provide for themselves as parasites or decomposers. Lichenologist Trevor Goward, describes the relationship thus; “Lichens are fungi that have discovered agriculture”. Fungi are the farmers, and algae or cyanobacteria (formally called blue-green algae) are the livestock.

Lichen are easy to examine in any season. They can be seen with naked eye and though hand lens are helpful for focusing in on these small beings, they are not necessary. They grow in the leftover spots of the natural world that are too harsh or limited for most other organisms. They are pioneers on rock, sand, cleared soil , dead wood, animal bones, rusty metal, and living bark. Able to shut down metabolically during periods of unfavorable conditions, they can survive extremes of heat, cold, and drought. There are four basic lichen types that can be found in New England. Take your child or children out into the woods and examine these fantastic examples of interdependence.

o Crustose lichens form crusts that are so tightly attached to the rocks, trees, sidewalks, or soils they grow on that they can’t be removed without damaging the substrate.

o Foliose lichens are somewhat leaf-like, composed of lobes. They are relatively loosely attached to their substrates, usually by means of rhizines. Their lobes have upper and lower sides and usually grow more-or-less parallel to the substrate.

o Fruticose lichens are the most three-dimensional. They’re usually round in cross section and most are branched. They can be like little shrubs growing upward, or they can hang down in long strands.

o Squamulose lichens have scale-like lobes called squamules that are usually small and overlapping. Lichens in the genus Cladonia have squamulose bases and often have fruticose fruiting structures called podetia.

Lichens are indicators of healthy air quality because they get their nutrients right from the air. So here is another example of interdependence – if lichens are indicators of healthy air and we see them, we know the air quality is probably pretty healthy. On the other hand, if we are not seeing many healthy lichen, than we know that it is time to make some changes in the way we impact the air quality around us. Cause, we breathe that air too, so it is our best interests to change our impact – good for us and for the lichen. So we are likin’ those lichen.

The Nested Systems Search: Find a bird’s nest or hold up a photo of one. Any one will do. What is this? Yes, a bird’s nest. What is it used for? Yes for holding eggs and chicks. You can see the boundaries and yet, this little nest is only one part of the birds’ home. The nest is nestled into a bigger system. What is this nest part of; where did the bird’s parents find these materials? The forest. So the nest is nestled in the forest. What is the forest nestled into? You can name the town you are in; the watershed, the state, the bio-region, and continue to extend outward until you include the whole Earth system. Now briefly let’s go backwards from the nest. It holds a bird and the bird itself is not only one entity, it is also made up of many living cells. There are other minute beings, such as bacteria, also living on and in the bird. Systems living within systems. And each level interacts and is interdependent with other systems. Challenge your students to explore woods and look for examples of interdependence and nested systems. Ask them to share their findings about how systems fit together.

Song “We’re All a Family Under One Sky”: A sweet way to end your experience for the day is to sing about what you found. Have participants interject various species. Repeat song several times.
“We all a family under one sky, a family under one sky!
We’re chickadees! We’re maple trees! We’re gray squirrels and lichen too!”

Think about what you eat, where you live, how you get around. All these things come from the Earth. Human culture is not separated from Nature; we are part of it. We exist because of it. And – we are all a family under one sky, a family living within this incredible system – Earth!

sharing our trip to Alaska and Learning about Animal tracking

Frank Grindrod of http://www.earthworkprograms.com/
invites you to go for a guided walk of the mysteries of animal tracking in Alaska.
Learn to see through the eyes of a tracker.

what questions do you ask yourself when out in the forest?

when tracking look for patterns in the natural world.

what are the animals doing throughout the seasons.

There are so many mysteries in outdoor education and so many models.

How did you do on this little tracking quiz?

Filming by my lovely wife Arianna in our trip to Alaska in the Kenai wildlife Refuge.
Hope you enjoy our video’s and share with your friends and family.
we have a  request : Rate our videos and comment so more people can see them (pass them on)

Thanks for your support.