Wicked Big Puddles: Vernal Pools, Salamanders, and Wood Frogs

Right about now, spotted salamanders, wood frogs, and other aquatic creatures around northern New England are preparing for a very big night at the pool. A vernal pool, that is — one of the ephemeral ponds that form in low-lying woodlands just after the snow melts each spring and serve as nurseries for a variety of forest animals.

One of those animals is the delightfully named fairy shrimp. This small crustacean lives its entire life, about one week, in a vernal pool. During this short life, the females deposit egg cases on the bottom of the pool, which hatch the following year when the water returns.

Wood frogs and spotted salamanders travel to vernal pools to mate and lay their eggs. Because the pools don’t keep their water throughout the year, the eggs are safe from fish and other predators. Wood frog tadpoles and salamander larvae live in the small pools; by the time the pools are dry again, the amphibians are ready to move into the forest, where they’ll spend most of their lives — except for a night or two each year when they return to the pools where they were born to keep the cycle going.

These three animals are called obligate species. That’s because their life cycle requires them — obligates them — to use a vernal pool. Many land conservation and environmental organizations work to protect these magical places. Near Amherst, Mass., volunteers built a tunnel called “Salamander Crossing” to allow spotted salamanders safe passage from one side of the road to their vernal pool on the other.

Over the next few weeks, one of these organizations, Mass Audubon, is hosting events around Massachusetts. I poked around online and found several listings. If you have a favorite Audubon sanctuary, you may find more events near you.

Speaking as a parent, I can attest to the appeal of vernal-pool amphibians. Spotted salamanders are big — roughly half a foot in length and built thick and burly — and bright. The yellow spots along the length of a spotted salamander body are almost iridescent, especially if you’re lucky enough to catch one by flashlight on a Big Night in a Wicked Big Puddle.

Saturday, March 19, Worcester, Mass. “Wicked Big Puddles” Family Nature Exploration. 10:00 a.m. – 3:00 p.m. Broad Meadow Brook Sanctuary.

Saturday, March 19, Attleboro, Mass. 2:00 – 3:30 p.m. Salamander Stroll and Scavenger Hunt. Mass Audubon’s Oak Knoll and Attleboro Springs Wildlife Sanctuaries.

Saturday, March 26, Fitchburg, Mass. 1:00 – 3:00 pm. “Wicked Big Puddles” Family Nature Exploration. Crocker Elementary School parking lot, 200 Bigelow Drive, Fitchburg. Mass Audubon co-hosts with North County Land Trust and Nashua River Watershed Association. (Rain/Snow Date: Sunday 3/27, 1:00 - 3:00 pm.)

Wednesday, March 30, Belmont, Mass. 3:30 - 5:00 pm. “Wicked Big Puddles” Family Nature Exploration. Mass Audubon’s Habitat Wildlife Sanctuary, Belmont, Mass.

Friday, April 8, Attleboro, Mass. 6:30 – 8:00 p.m. Vernal Pool Night Hike. Mass Audubon’s Oak Knoll and Attleboro Springs Wildlife Sanctuaries.

Saturday, April 16, Topsfield, Mass. 1:00 – 2:30 p.m. Vernal Pool Safari. Mass Audubon’s Ipswich River Nature Center.

Learn more
- Big Night for Salamanders, a Smithsonian Notable Book for Children for 2010, written by Sarah Lamstein and illustrated by Carol Benioff, tells the story of one boy’s efforts to help spotted salamanders on their Big Night.
- The Vernal Pool Association is a volunteer outreach and education organization based in Reading, Mass.
- National Geographic on Spotted Salamanders.

Photos courtesy the Vernal Pool Association.

Great Kids, Great Outdoors” is an AMC Outdoors blog, written by Kristen Laine.

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