No sooner has the last snow thawed before these transient, and delicate, habitats are teeming with life. Vernal pools are seasonal woodland bodies of water — some are just large puddles — that flood (with snow melt, then rainwater) for a few months during the spring and dry up by the end of summer. They are critical breeding grounds for many species of amphibians, including seven of the District of Columbia’s species of greatest conservation need, such as the spotted salamander and the spring peeper.
In urban areas like the Washington, vernal pools are susceptible to a variety of threats, including climate change, development, pollution and run-off, and even off-leash canines. This is bad news for those species whose life cycle depends entirely on the stability of a temporary-by-nature habitat.
The spring peeper, for instance: A tiny frog about the size of a quarter, peepers breed and lay eggs in these shallow puddles, where their tadpoles mature before the pools dry up. Then, as adult peepers, they over-winter nearby under leaves or tree bark, only to repeat the cycle anew each spring. Wary by nature, they hide when they sense a person’s approach, and they can be very hard to spot. But if they are present, you’ll likely hear their peeping in very early spring. It is surprisingly loud for a frog so small! Listen for the males serenading to attract females around dusk and into the evening. Later in the spring, you might notice their gelatinous clumps of eggs or their minute black tadpoles in the pools.
Who would think that the biggest threat to this tiny creature might just be a single, overzealous labradoodle playing in the pond water in Rock Creek Park? Such is the fragility of the vernal pool.
What can I do to help vernal pools?
The best way to help is to simply leave them be. Be respectful of wooded and natural areas.
This means keeping dogs leashed, and using the age-old camping rule of “leave no trace”, taking litter and water bottles with you and placing them in appropriate dedicated trash or recycling receptacles.
Where can I find vernal pools in the DC Metropolitan area?
- Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens
- Oxon Run Parkway
- Fort Dupont
- Kingman/Heritage Islands
- National Arboretum
- C&O Canal
- Rock Creek Park
Just follow the sound of the peepers. But hurry! These pools disappear quickly!