Wilder Side of Oakland County
As winter yields to spring, blue-spotted salamanders are roused into action. They emerge from their moist subterranean dwellings and embark on overland journeys to reach the same vernal ponds where their lives began. The vernal pond is a unique forest pond as it only holds water part of the year and is fish-free. The word vernal is derived from vernalis, Latin for spring. In another few weeks, these ephemeral ponds will teem with life, with some creatures so bizarre that they appear to be alien species.
What creature has two pairs of antennae, swims upside down and has 22 legs that assist with breathing, feeding and swimming? If you guessed the knobbed-lip fairy shrimp, then you know your crustaceans. This one-inch long, vernal pool organism is referred to as an obligate species, for it is obligated to live and breed in vernal pools. As the bushy-tailed, gilled larvae of the blue-spotted salamander grows, many of the fairy shrimp become entrees for these carnivorous creatures.
Even as frost still grips the earth and snowflakes fall, wood frogs thaw out from their state of near suspended animation under the forest floor where they over-wintered. They crawl out from under logs and leaves and hop to fish-free vernal ponds in search of mates. At about the same time hepatica blooms, they sound off with a raucous breeding chorus that resembles the endless quacking of ducks. Their calls reach a passionate pitch on warm spring nights and add musical diversity to the bell-like jingling of thousands of spring peepers at the edge of the ponds.
All the splashing and singing in the pond alerts other creatures to this ever-changing oasis of early spring life. Red-shouldered hawks snatch frogs, raccoons and opossums paw for salamanders in the shallows and the occasional coyote or fox wander by to see what all the excitement is about. As days continue to warm, snakes slither by for easy pickings and green herons search for meaty morsels.
Vernal Ponds are perhaps the most exciting and dynamic confirmation that the duel between winter and spring is underway. Spring always wins the battle in the end, for that is the way of nature on the wilder side of Oakland County.
Text and photos by Nature Education Writer, Jonathan Schechter. Originally published on April 2, 2015, updated on April 1, 2016.
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