Vernal pools reveal valuable information about salamanders

Summit Metro Parks
4 min readMay 6, 2023

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Katelyn Freil, Marketing Specialist

As warmer evening temperatures meet spring rains, salamanders across the region make their trek out from under leaf litter and mud to meet in the vernal pools. Created by snowmelt and rainfall during winter and early spring, vernal pools provide critical habitat for critters like frogs, toads, fairy shrimp and of course, salamanders. It is here that these amazing amphibians lay their eggs, free from fishy predators found in ponds and other year-round bodies of water, before returning to the forest floor.

The pools keep eggs wet until larvae emerge with gills, a broad tail for swimming and stubby legs. Larvae develop during their time in the vernal pool, growing into juveniles with lungs and legs by the time the pools dry for the season. An important part of the salamander’s lifecycle, these pools provide unique insights into their lives.

Smallmouth salamander eggs on a log in a vernal pool. Click the link below to watch a YouTube short in which SMP Biologist Marlo Perdicas describes the characteristics of salamander eggs.

Summit Metro Parks biologists and volunteers have studied vernal pools across the park district for the past two years to better understand salamander populations in the Metro Parks, their migration habits and where to focus future conservation efforts. Guided by Metro Parks Biologists Marlo Perdicas and Jason Whittle, 14 volunteers have spent more than 600 hours surveying vernal pools between the 2022 and 2023 spring seasons.

To gather data, volunteers visit their assigned pools to place traps during the days leading up to warm and rainy evenings when salamanders move. The traps are mesh and wire rectangles with funnels on either end to gently guide salamanders in, causing no harm in the process. Each day, volunteers return to the traps, document findings and return salamanders directly to the pool in which they were found before recording data in iNaturalist.

Volunteer Al Casanova stands at a vernal pool, holding a trap used to collect salamanders for surveying. In the background, a trap is set in the vernal pool.

Volunteers and staff have made many interesting discoveries since surveying began, like how salamanders are adapting to environmental changes caused by human development. One notable example involved a survey of small pits created by road construction 20 years prior, using nine traps to collect salamanders from almost every one.

“That wasn’t a beautiful, natural vernal pool; it’s just a little pit that [humans] created. Because the pools have sat there for such a long time, they’ve naturalized, and now salamanders are utilizing them,” Perdicas said. “That little pool doesn’t look like much, but it’s habitat.”

Other pools used by salamanders include depressions in the land caused by uprooted trees and pools in old human-made structures. SMP studies have even shown some salamanders are using year-round bodies of water, but that doesn’t mean they are a viable alternative to vernal pools. Rather, salamanders only use permanent bodies of water in locations where vernal pools already exist and populations may be doing well enough to branch off.

These observations highlight the importance of vernal pools, which are facing threats from climate change and human development. “Wetlands of any kind all across the world are being filled in, dredged, destroyed, developed … And so we have to consider that we might not have these species if we continue to allow these things to happen,” Perdicas said.

In recent years, Summit Metro Parks has made great strides to restore and protect wetlands within park boundaries. In 2020, the park district completed a 15-year project to restore Pond Brook, including more than five miles of stream and hundreds of acres of wetland and forested habitats. While large-scale projects like this have a tremendous impact on our local ecosystem, what you do in your back yard can be just as important.

Vernal pool volunteer Jerry Cannon stops to take a picture while conducting surveys.

Lawn chemicals end up in runoff, which makes its way into all bodies of water, like the Cuyahoga River, tributary streams and vernal pools. Additionally, directing water off lawns and into sewers leads to rapid runoff, which can cause small streams, vernal pools and other important water bodies to dry up more quickly. Instead, embrace a Wild Back Yard! Refrain from using chemicals in or around your lawn, opting instead for natural soil amendments and pest control. Capture rainwater via rain barrels or rain gardens to allow water to soak into the ground slowly.

Free, naturalist-led programs are a great opportunity to learn more about salamanders and how growing a Wild Back Yard can support species important to our local ecosystem. We hope you’ll join us in supporting these amazing amphibians!

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Summit Metro Parks

Summit Metro Parks manages 15,000 acres, 16 parks, three nature centers and more than 150 miles of trails. Find more at www.summitmetroparks.org.