Students Search For Life In Vernal Pools

By: Tim Wood

Students use a dip net to sample life in the vernal pool.

CHATHAM – “There's no such thing as just leaves and dirt.”

That mantra, recited by Monomoy Regional Middle School science teacher Melinda Forist, was repeated by students recently as they dipped nets into the brackish water of a vernal pool located behind the school. The nets came up with leaves and dirt, for sure, but also contained a number of wriggling and squirming creatures.

Students counted nine tadpoles, dragonfly larvae and various other larvae floating in a plastic pan. Exactly what species they'd captured was not certain; that was their next task after last week's field trip.

Two vernal pools in the woods behind the school, created in April 2015 in a cooperative program between the school, the Chatham Conservation Foundation – which owns the land – and Mass Audubon's Long Pond Pasture Sanctuary, provide a convenient laboratory for students in fifth and seventh grades. With field trip money tight, the quick walk to the vernal pools means they can be used almost year-round during a regular class period.

“The challenge is getting kids to visit a vernal pool,” said Chatham Conservation Foundation Director Matt Cannon. So we brought the vernal pool to them.”

Fifth graders keep vernal pool notebooks, and the pools allow seventh graders to get real life experience in many of the environmental science areas they study, such as biodiversity, water testing and data collection. Students also journal about the vernal pools and sketch the ever-changing scenery.

“It's also been used as just a quiet resting place,” said science teacher Nancy Gifford. Students visit the site at least once a month, said Forist.

Since being created – a process the kids were involved in – the vernal pools have filled with water, vegetation and life.

“Ian (Ives, director of Long Pond Pasture) told us if we built it they will come, said Forist. “And he was right. One of the pools is now two feet deep, the other 16 inches, as recently measured by the students.

A vernal pool is a temporary body of fresh water that serves as a habitat for vertebrates and invertebrates, many of which are rare or endangered. The pools are often shallow depressions in forests and fill with water in the spring and fall but are otherwise dry. Vernal pools are protected under the Massachusetts Wetlands Protection Act. Although artificially created, the two on the Foundation land adjacent to the school are just as functional, or will be as time goes by. Cannon and the students are working to certify the pools through the state department of environmental protection's Natural Heritage and Endangered Species program.

There are five criteria for certification, Cannon explained, involving two different methods, depending on the species found. There are biological criteria, such as identifying breeding evidence of certain amphibian species or the presence of fairy shrimp, as well as physical criteria, such as a pool with no permanently flowing outlet.

So far no spotted salamanders – probably the best known of the species that thrive in vernal pools – have been found, but a number of frog species have been seen,and the regular visits aim to document those. Adults, tadpoles or egg masses need to be identified, through photos, videos or audio recording of calls of the frogs. The students are following protocols taught them by Mass Audubon.

Volunteers are largely responsible for finding and identifying vernal pools, and working with the school provides a head start.

“We've got 475 volunteers,” Cannon said. Certifying a vernal pool provides protection by putting it on the map, so to speak; that's more important for pools on private property, he pointed out. Because the Foundation owns the property where these pools are located, part of a 20-acre parcel that includes an old cranberry bog, their protection is guaranteed.

Recently students spread wildflower seeds along the banks of the pools, and on a regular basis they check a camera mounted on a tree to track animal activity around the pools. They've seen deer and people walking dogs, but there's been evidence of other animals frequenting the area, including tracks visible after rainfall softens the earth. Eventually, they'd like to set up a website where anyone can monitor the vernal pools, Forist said.

Last week, students participating in a school seminar focusing on the vernal pools visited and dipped nets into the water to find out what's living there. The students are planning to build bird houses and have put down coverboards – square-foot sections of plywood – in the woods surrounding the vernal pools. In March they will lift them up and see what's living underneath.

The vernal pools, in essence, serve as a year-round extension of the classroom.

“If we can get out here, we will,” said Gifford.

Follow news about the vernal pools via the Monomoy Middle School's Twitter account, @MMS_science.