Looking Back- A Visit to the Vernal Pool

25 Jul

Last April, I organized a trip for the second graders of the Smith College Campus School to visit the vernal pools at the MacLeish Field Station as part of a special studies with professor Jesse Bellemare. I am a ‘14 Smith graduate with a degree in biology and plans to go into research. However, I am also very interested in educational outreach that connects young children to nature, which I wish to pursue once I become more established in my career as a biologist. Thus I saw this special studies as the perfect opportunity to gain some experience and utilize what I had learned in both my ecology and education courses.

Vernal pools are very common in western Massachusetts, and MacLeish is home to several. They are depressions in the ground that fill with water either from snowmelt or rainfall in early spring, and dry up completely later on throughout the year. The complete drying out and the absence of an incoming water source prohibit fish from surviving. This lack of predatory fish allows many species of amphibians to mate and breed in the pool. Two types of animals live in vernal pools: obligate and facultative. Obligate animals depend on vernal pools to survive while facultative do not. A vernal pool must have obligate species living in it to be considered a vernal pool. Obligate species include fairy shrimp, the wood frog, the spotted salamander, the blue spotted salamander, and the Jefferson salamander. Facultative species include the spring peeper and the gray treefrog; insects such as the whirligig beetle, caddis fly, daphnia, mosquito larvae, and the diving beetle; and other visitors such as raccoon, blue heron, and turtle and snake species.

vernal pool - MacLeish                                                      A vernal pool at MacLeish.

Several of the second graders were already familiar with vernal pools and all of them were excited to learn about more about them, especially after they read the book The Secret Pool by Kimberly Ridley in class. Their enthusiasm was very infectious and I was quite impressed at the quality and quantity of their questions.

I brought each class of second graders down to MacLeish’s largest vernal pool while the other class went on a nature walk. Each student had their own net, and they explored in groups to search for whatever critters they could find. We then brought all the samples back to the Bechtel Environmental Classroom and placed the creatures in Petri dishes for the children to look at under dissecting microscopes. We looked at horsehair worms, mosquito larvae, a toe-biter (giant water bug larvae), fingernail clams, fairy shrimp, salamander and wood frog eggs, and other critters found in the detritus of the vernal pool. The students consulted field guides with me and, when they found an organism of considerable interest, took out their naturalist notebooks and sketched a scientific drawing.

Spotted salamander eggs - MacLeish                                                        Spotted salamander eggs.

The field trip was a great success and the children left wanting more time with the microscopes. The chaperones and teachers were as curious and as eager to learn as the students. I believe everyone left the Field Station with a better understanding of vernal pools and an interest to learn more about the creatures that inhabit them. I left the experience even more excited to continue with educational outreach in the future. We hope for the field trip to be an annual event, with a new Smith student interested in scientific outreach leading it each year.

Sarah Gaffney ’14 graduated this spring with a major in biological sciences and a minor in Spanish. She was a proud member of Morris House during all four of her years at Smith. Sarah now works as a field technician in the Jemez Mountains of New Mexico, where she performs surveys of the area’s vegetation and assists with research on bears, elk, and deer. In her spare time she enjoys knitting, reading, and watching Netflix.

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