Vernal pools spring to life

By Richard Leighton

It’s that time when you might want to take a spring break and sit around a pool to enjoy watching activity that’s on the wild side. Of course, we’re talking about sitting around a vernal pool. 

These pools are created in the wooded lowlands by the rains and melted snow of March and early April. Most of them will go dry by summer. After all, they’re only “vernal,” which means “of the spring.” So now is the time to see them.

Vernal pools are where many amphibians and crustaceans must breed and grow to fulfill their important roles as insect eaters, foods for other wildlife and sources of wonder and discovery for us. 

In Maine, they’re an indispensable part of the life stages of at least three native amphibians: the spotted salamander (shown here), the blue-spotted salamander and the wood frog. These pools also are just about the only place where native freshwater crustaceans called fairy shrimp swim, which they do by backstroking upside down.

Some of the amphibious vernal pool creatures, including the spotted salamander, are “pool-specific” creatures. That is, no matter where they are, when the temperature gives them the signal that it’s time to mate and lay eggs, thousands of them embark on a nocturnal march to return to the pool in which they were born.

On such “Big Nights,” these tiny travelers often must scurry relatively long distances and cross roads to get to their family pool to engage in an orgy of breeding. Nature lovers with flashlights often try to give them a hand traversing roads and other difficult terrain. 

Maine vernal pools that are determined to be of high value to wildlife are regulated as “Significant Vernal Pools” under the state’s Natural Resources Protection Act. Serious disturbances of such pools are prohibited and activities that have the potential to affect the pools may not be undertaken without a permit. 

When you’re buying land to build on, make sure it doesn’t contain a significant vernal pool where you’re going to build. On the other hand, you’ll probably never regret having a vernal pool nearby to sit around during a spring break and watch the wildlife.

Editor’s note: Brooklin author/photographer Richard J. Leighton creates the popular “In the Right Place” posts online about life and nature in Maine. He shares a post the second Thursday of each month in The Ellsworth American. RICHARD LEIGHTON PHOTO

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