Hunting for salamanders and frogs:
Vernal pool exploration seeks prized egg clusters
By Jamie Balliett, The Cape Codder
Tony Pane made a whooping sound from the edge of the dark cold wetland.
“Yes!” he bellowed across the water.
“Oh my god. This is amazing,” he added, his voice lowered.
No, he hadn’t fallen in the water. He was held in his tracks looking at the edge.
Dressed in hip waders with a white baseball hat and carrying a five-foot tall pole, this retired English teacher bent over to better gauge his find – almost 15 small clusters of salamander eggs attached to sticks in about ten inches of water.
Each cluster looked like a handful of yellowish Jell-O mounds with a dozen raisins held suspended inside.
Matt Cannon, the Harwich Conservation Trust Outreach and Stewardship Coordinator, quickly caught up with his volunteer and the two congratulated each other.
They looked for a minute at the soft masses and then carefully positioned the clusters for a series of photographs with a white clipboard. Pane then put them back into the water, just as they had been found.
The images are considered valuable evidence.
The eggs, likely from a blue spotted salamander, will provide sufficient justification for the 50-foot by 80-foot wetland off Grist Mill Lane in Harwich to become a certified vernal pool, which enables a higher level of both town and state environmental protection for the resource area.
Vernal pools are peculiar freshwater bodies that are quite common across the Cape.
These wetlands are often small and very fragile due to their geography, hydrologic conditions, and limited species within.
They are a byproduct of years of glacial deposition resulting in a thick concave layer of clay that can hold water. While most wetlands contain water year round, a vernal pool only has water in it seasonally during the winter and spring, with drier lowlands filled with rich vegetation in the summer and fall. Few vernal pools have water deeper than two feet.
These wetlands host a range of indicator amphibian and invertebrate species like spring peepers, spade foot toads, wood frogs, spotted salamanders, and even two species of shrimp. Due to a low water and low oxygen environment, these areas are often devoid of fish populations, which allows frogs and salamanders the opportunity to thrive.
“We are very careful when surveying a pool not to walk around too much and get in and out as fast as possible,” explained Pane, who has lived in town for the last 13 years and done multiple certifications.
“The important part is to take clear and well documented images of any egg masses at this time of the year,” said Cannon, who said a completed detailed application would be submitted to the State Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program for review.
“These little tadpoles are just beginning to grow and in a few short weeks they’ll become active and work their way into the water. By May, you can really see them moving,” said Pane.
The two visited three wetland areas during that morning. Only one qualified as a possible certified vernal pool. The second was too small with no egg masses and the third had water flowing in from a cranberry bog and was too deep.
“It’s got to just be ideal conditions,” said Cannon, who said that the egg masses could be found only during a few short weeks each spring.
The largest wetland was quite inhospitable to the two surveyors. Thick briars and dense woody vegetation kept them slow moving on the perimeter and then deep mud threatened to hold their legs in place.
“It was very ugly in there,” said Pane, jokingly. “A few places, I was really struggling.”
These wetlands off Grist Mill Lane span five wooded parcels that were recently donated to the HCT from two separate owners, Andrea Aldrovandi and Steve Backus.
In Harwich, the HCT has worked over the last seven years to certify 35 new pools, bringing the total in town up to 42.
Have you heard the peepers in your neighborhood?
In one of the most exciting rights of spring, small wetlands across the Cape came alive this week with the shrill sounds of fingertip sized northern spring peepers (Pseudacris crucifer). Their nightly chorus, involving groups of frogs that can reach 120 decibels (hard to stand at close distances), is part of their mating ritual that lasts the next five weeks. Pound for pound, these 3-gram frogs are likely some of the loudest animals on the planet. To learn more about vernal pools, visit:
173 Certified vernal pools across the Lower & Outer Cape