Youth study vernal pools in northern Michigan

The 4-H Student Stewards are wading into a unique opportunity in northeast Michigan to help study vernal pools.

Students wade through vernal pools.

Students wade through vernal pools.

As part of the Student Stewards 4-H club in Alcona County, youth in elementary through high school are working with scientists from the Michigan Natural Features Inventory (MNFI) to study and record the ecology of vernal pools before they dry up. The Stewards explored four potential vernal pools in Negwegon State Park looking for specific species unique to vernal pools as part of the newly launched place-based education Vernal Pool Patrol Project. These youth are contributing to a statewide effort to identify, monitor and map vernal pools.

Armed with waders and dip nets, these 4-H Student Stewards tromped through the forest in late April to the first of a series of four potential vernal pools to be explored. The youth used a data collection protocol and recording sheets provided by MNFI researchers to ensure the value of their data. The youth recorded information about the pool temperature, depth, submerged and partially submerged trees and vegetation before moving on to a careful survey for aquatic animals.

There was an atmosphere of hopeful expectations with the discovery of a cluster of blue-spotted salamander eggs, a species that favors vernal pools for reproduction, followed by disappointment when no fairy shrimp were found. Moving on to the second pool, the youth were excited to find fairy shrimp within minutes of surveying the pool. The results were the same for the third and fourth pools, confirming they were vernal pools. Fairy shrimp are a species unique to the vernal pool habitat because their eggs must dry up and freeze in order for them to hatch in the spring. The lack of fairy shrimp in the first pool located within feet of the second pool leads the youth to speculate why. Looking over the data, the youth hypothesized the pool was too cold for the fairy shrimp to have hatched (the first pool was 8 degrees colder than the second pool), and anticipate finding them in future monitoring efforts.

Vernal poolVernal pools are small, short-lived pools that fill in early spring as the snow melts and dry up in late summer. MNFI scientists and Michigan State University Extension researchers study the ecology of these vernal pools during this small window of time each spring. It can be a challenge to visit large numbers of vernal pools each spring when life is most active, but before these seasonal wetlands dry up. Launching a new Vernal Pool Patrol Project aimed at schools and youth, the researchers are calling on our youngest citizen scientists to help collect and report data in these vernal pools across northern Michigan. For more information about the Vernal Pool Patrol project, see “Vernal Pool Patrol: Salamanders, frog eggs, and fairy shrimp, oh my!

The Vernal Pool Patrol Project is supported by the Northeast Michigan Great Lakes Stewardship Initiative and Grand Traverse Stewardship Initiative networks, including U.S. Fish and Wildlife ServiceHuron Pines4-H Youth Programs and Michigan Sea Grant, among other partners.

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