Over the next few weeks, small pools of water in wooded areas will be brought to life by the chirping of frogs. They collect locations for all kinds of creatures that need these temporary shallow ponds to find a mate. I was on my way there.
I drove to Beth Weiler, a naturalist, who wanted to show me a vernal pond near Ann Arbor. On the way it rained so heavily that some drivers went off the road.
I’m a radio reporter who carries a lot of gear. Nobody likes water.
I wore a waterproof coat and rain pants and brought an umbrella to try and keep my recorder and camera reasonably dry. Oh, and I brought a flashlight.
Hamlet led me onto a muddy path. The rain didn’t let up. I was trying to figure out how to carry the microphone and recorder, my rather weak flashlight, an umbrella and my large camera in my raincoat.
Weiler, a naturalist, seemed perfectly comfortable wearing her gear. Her flashlight actually lit the way.
She stopped to point out a small red-backed salamander along the way. It looked like an earthworm with eyes and tiny feet. How she saw it, I have no idea. It must have been her really bright flashlight and, you know, maybe years of experience and knowledge.
Weiler earned a Master of Science in Ecosystem Science and studied pollinator ecology. But she says she’s drawn to all the “unloved” critters: bugs, snakes and salamanders.
Thunder rumbled as we arrived at the small pond in the forest.
I turned on the recorder.
“It’s dark. We’re in the forest. There’s a thunderstorm. And you say this is the best place to find what we’re looking for?” I asked.
“Yes, we’re at a beautiful spring lake and deciduous forest tonight looking for salamanders and frogs,” Weiler said, smiling. It seemed like she was in her happy place.
“Why would that be a good night for salamanders and frogs?” I prompted.
“They love this warm rain. And right now is the breeding migration of the salamanders. So it’s the best time to see them,” she explained.
The rain wasn’t warm for me.
“Let’s find some,” I said.
“Great,” she said as she aimed the flashlight at the water and immediately saw male spotted salamanders. No females in sight.
The last time I reported on something like this was in 1999. I learned a lot about wood frogs that night. We didn’t hear about that tonight. We’ve seen some spring gazers that were a lot smaller than I imagined, about the size of your thumbnail.
Since that story almost a quarter of a century ago, I’ve heard something I didn’t see then, something called fairy shrimp.
“Oh my god. I love the fairy shrimp! So we can see a lot of them tonight. They’re sort of the foundation of the spring tank. They’re a small crustacean. They lay two different types of eggs when they hatch, sort of as a safety precaution,” said Hamlet.
The first eggs are said to survive when the spring pool dries up in the summer. The second eggs are designed to survive freezing in winter.
Fairy shrimp are everywhere in this pool, almost floating on top of the water. They are only about half an inch long. They are food for insect larvae, which then become food for birds and amphibians such as frogs and salamanders.
I thought we were lucky to see some salamanders. We immediately saw a dozen or so.
“If you catch it on the right night. Often a night like this is warmer. It’s really rainy. You will see dozens of them, sometimes hundreds in a breeding ball, which we haven’t seen before,” Weiler said.
She added that while many males “crossed around,” they were just waiting for the females at this point.
Luckily the rain let up a bit and I was able to stop worrying about electronics and enjoy the scene a little more.
Suddenly we saw a couple of people with lights walking towards us. Rodger Bowser walked to shore.
“It’s like a case every year,” he said.
“I was told it’s the big night, the big dance, prom for amphibians,” I said, using the only cool phrases I’d learned from the amphibian and “herp” crowd (that’s herp for herpetology for uninitiated). .
“Yes! Secure. Certainly. This is fantastic. We looked at the weather and we were like two days ago. We thought, ‘Today will be the day.’ You don’t find that everywhere in the city. It’s just these vernal pools like this, you know? So it’s a little, little magical place right here in the middle of the city for us,” Bowser said.
After looking around the other side of the tank, he came back to tell us that there was one of those underwater salamander breeding balls that Hamlet mentioned. We had a look at it.
“The breeding ball we’re watching right now is definitely a dance. It involves a series of fairly complicated movements where the males nudge the females with their snouts and there are some reciprocal movements like that and then the male actually deposits his spermatophore which is a little packet of sperm in front of the female and waves that around Tail. And then the female will see him and follow him and pick him up,” Weiler said.
Quite a few of them swam and twirled around each other. There were some nudges among the salamanders, but there were still no females. However, there were some fairly large egg sacs lying in the water nearby. The females must be around somewhere.
One of the reasons these ephemeral pools are important to frogs and salamanders is that most of them dry up in the summer. That means fish aren’t there to eat all those fairy shrimp and amphibian eggs.
“So the spring pools are really important habitats, breeding habitats for a number of invertebrate species and amphibian species because there are no predatory fish in these wetlands,” said Yu Man Lee, conservation scientist with the Michigan Natural Features Inventory at Michigan State University.
She says spring pools are also crucial for many species of invertebrates. But due to a hodgepodge of state and federal laws, it’s not always possible to preserve them.
“So some of them can be protected under our current regulations, but a lot of them fall through the cracks and aren’t,” Lee said.
That’s because they may not be connected to or close to other bodies of water. The small ponds are often located in forests.
“Keep in mind that the wood frogs and spotted salamanders and the blue-spotted (salamanders) also need some amount of forest around spring pools before they can sustain populations,” Lee explained.
It is part of the Michigan Vernal Pools Partnership, a public-private partnership that includes several government agencies, environmental and conservation groups, and scientists. It focuses on conservation, education and outreach to make more people aware of the importance of spring pools.
Back at the spring tank in Ann Arbor, Beth Weiler says if one of those little tanks is lost, a whole bunch of frogs, salamanders, newts, and those fairy shrimp are also lost.
“Every year when I come here I feel like I’m witnessing something very old. I mean these animals show something called site fidelity where they come back to the same pond they hatched from to breed. And it just feels very special to me to see something like that, especially in our backyards. You don’t have to go far to see something very amazing.”