When we think of bodies of water, we automatically visualize a creek, lake, river, and bodies of oceans; however, did you know that seasonal wetland water sources called vernal pools created in a natural setting are just as important? Vernal pools are unlike other freshwater wetlands mainly due to what happens in late winter and early spring. Melting snow and rainwater collects in small, depressed areas in various landscapes, such as forested habitats, floodplains, and old quarries. We may think of them as mud puddles or stagnant pools of water, which they are not.
Why are vernal pools so important?
According to the National Wildlife Federation, “Vernal pools play a critical role in the ecology of many forests and prairies by sheltering species, including declining amphibians.” They are essential for supporting the health and biodiversity of our forests and are an integral part of the wildlife food web. Vernal pools are ideal for many obligate small species of life such as American wood frog tadpoles, toads, Jefferson, eastern and spotted salamanders, and various insects. In addition to other invertebrate species like fairy shrimp that are unique and interesting. Fairy shrimp produce eggs that can survive on a dry vernal pool bottom until the vernal pool refills. The eggs only hatch when the water conditions are right for survival.
The primary source of food and energy for multiple vernal pool organisms are fallen dead tree leaves, which lie at the bottom of the vernal pool.
In the fall, autumn leaves are shredded by caddies-flies, isopods, and other species sliced into smaller pieces that other creatures can eat to obtain energy. Next, wood frog tadpoles, fairy shrimp, and a variety of insects eat more minor bits of residues left behind. Finally, insects, spiders, amphibians, reptiles, and birds consume the leftovers. When many vernal pools have shrunk to mud holes in late summer and fall, reptiles such as turtles and snakes rely on them for shelter and food.
Several local and state parks have educators on hand who have created programs, from birding to vernal pool explorations.
When exploring vernal pools with or without a guide, we find that having a small backpack or field bag is necessary. In addition, we have a journal and writing tool, a little fish aquarium dip net to find aquatic animals, a book to identify the species you have discovered, a pair of binoculars to view your specimen, and a reusable drinking bottle, and a snack.