An all-ages group — college students to senior citizens — met for a vernal pool walk at Ten Mile Lowlands at Dundee Drive on April 30.
Herpetologist Dennis Quinn, co-author of “Conservation of Amphibians and Reptiles in Connecticut,” led the group of 14 on this sunny, final day of April.
“Things should be popping,” Quinn said to those gathered. “This is the first warm day we’ve had since a few weeks ago, so we should have some good luck.”
Ten Mile Lowlands is an environmentally-valuable location. “This is one of the few sites in Connecticut that has every species of turtle that can live within its range,” said Quinn, a Central Connecticut State University lecturer.
“That doesn’t happen very often, so that’s pretty neat,” Quinn added. “It’s great to have it here in Cheshire.”
And with that, the group, equipped with buckets, small containers, nets, and waders, bounded off into the parcel. Quinn encouraged the party to explore as he walked to a vernal pool to catch sight of egg masses or wood frogs, all the while gently turning over decaying logs to find salamanders.
Vernal pools are ephemeral water bodies that do not contain fish, and are used by certain species to reproduce.
As the group moved farther into the woods, CCSU student intern Tianna Togninalli discovered a red-backed salamander. This salamander is special, according to Quinn, as its life cycle is spent on land, not in vernal pools. Red-backed salamanders do not have a larval stage. They hatch from an egg and the female stays with them until they emerge.
“It’s significant because that specialized development requires highly-unfragmented, forested habitat. Once you start to get fragmentation, you start to get invasive species — worm species, plant species,” said Quinn. “These alter the forest environment, and when they alter the forest environment, they change not only soil chemistry, but they change the overall soil temperature and humidity in the soil. If your forest is degraded you are not going to see a high number or density of the red-backed salamander. So, they are an incredibly good indicator of the high forest quality.”
Salamander egg masses were abundant along the walk, as were wood frog tadpoles. And a friendly black water snake was passed around for photo ops.
Sarah Horbury, a participant in the walk, found a spring peeper, a tiny amphibian that belies its huge voice. The peeper also has a distinctive “X” on its back.
Painted turtles were lazing about on logs in the pools and Quinn literally leaped into a pool to pick up a spotted turtle, identified as a 30-year-old specimen and only as big as Quinn’s palm.
A big, plump spotted salamander was found under a log. As larvae, they are mainly predators, said Quinn. They feed on larvae of mosquitoes and dragonflies, even the larvae of other salamanders. “They play a really important ecological role in the spring in controlling mosquito populations,” said Quinn. “Without salamanders and without salamanders in vernal pools, we’d have a greater abundance of mosquitoes.”
As adults, salamanders eat live prey, insects, and worms. Frogs are different. Tadpoles consume leaf litter. Wood frogs are the only species that cycle nutrients from an aquatic environment — vernal pools — back into the surrounding uplands. Tadpoles eat all the detritus, then spread it into the forest. As adults, their diet changes to include insects.
“They are really, really important within the food web and really important when it comes to nutrient cycling,” said Quinn.
Decline in the population of woodland salamander species are linked to invasive plants, especially Japanese barberry, and garlic mustard. These invasives form monocultures that physically alter the chemistry of the soil.
“As we alter the ecosystem, we alter the ability of nature to control itself,” said Quinn. “We do that through lawns, manicured gardens, and non-native shrubs and plants.”
And there should never be roads built between uplands forest and vernal pools, said Quinn. “The best conservation is not in the field,” he said. ”If you really want to help amphibians, the best conservation happens at inland wetlands meetings, planning and zoning meetings and, at the state level, changing laws.”
The April 30 walk was hosted by Cheshire Creation Care and organized by Steve Trumbo with United Methodist Church.