A Magical Harbinger of Spring

Nature Academy

Finally, the ice is thawing on a small wet depression in the forest floor called a vernal pool. In late winter, a timeless ritual begins as spotted salamanders (Ambystoma maculatum) begin to emerge from the leaf litter and move toward their ancestral breeding pool. Spotted salamanders spend their life burrowing through the soil and leaf litter in the forest, so they are rarely found during other times of the year. A warm nighttime rain stimulates them to emerge en masse and begin their journey. Guided by a mysterious internal compass, they converge on vernal pools. This one was “spotted” at 4:30 a.m. on Wednesday, March 12, 2014, as it completed its journey to a vernal pool at Glenwood Gardens!

How important are vernal pools to woodland ecology? Any old pond won’t do! Vernal pools dry up frequently enough to prevent fish from becoming established. Fish gobble up the salamander larvae as quickly as they hatch, so what makes vernal pools distinct from ponds or permanent wetlands is that they are “fishless.”

If you consider that every spotted salamander in one area utilizes this one 20-foot diameter pool for reproduction, it’s obvious that if a vernal pool is destroyed, the population will soon follow. Vernal pools are such important ecological features that Stewardship staff makes a concerted effort to create new pools in woodlands when the opportunity arises. Great Parks works hard to preserve and enhance this critical wildlife habitat so that this magical spring event continues to be a part of our natural heritage.

Bret Henninger, Natural Resource Manager