VCU Symposium Raises Awareness about the Conservation and Management of Vernal Pools
Citizen scientists contribute to collaborative research study on critical habitats for amphibians
Sathya Achia Abraham
University Public Affairs
There is a local, regional and national need to raise public awareness of vernal pools - fascinating aquatic habitats that are critical for certain species of amphibians – according to preliminary data from a collaborative research effort by Virginia Commonwealth University, the College of William & Mary, state agencies and a statewide volunteer network of citizen scientists.
Many species that breed in these pools live their adult lives in forested habitat, so maintaining these ecosystems requires careful management of both the pools and the surrounding terrestrial forests in order to maintain regional biodiversity.
And while it is not certain how amphibians contribute to the way our forest ecosystems function overall, they are usually found in great numbers and experts say that this fact alone points to their critical role in the environment.
This week, Virginia Commonwealth University hosted a mini-symposium highlighting the ecology of vernal pools along the eastern U.S., conservation, management, the role of citizen science and preliminary findings of a VCU-led study.
More than 150 representatives from 10 state and federal resource management and regulatory agencies, wetland professionals, engineers, consultants, academic researchers and conservation groups, along with Master Naturalist volunteers from 10 different chapters, gathered at VCU for a series of talks.
According to event organizer, Anne Wright, coordinator of VCU Life Sciences Outreach Education, one of the goals of the symposium is to build a network of partnerships among academics, agencies, citizen scientists and land managers in Virginia and throughout eastern North America to share information and raise awareness of these critical and threatened habitats.
An expert panel of researchers representing vernal pool initiatives from Maine to Georgia included keynote speaker Aram Calhoun, Ph.D., associate professor of wetlands ecology, University of Maine; Lora Smith, Ph.D., associate scientist from the Joseph W. Jones Ecological Research Center in Georgia; and David Patrick, Ph.D., director of the Center for Adirondack Biodiversity at Paul Smith’s College of the Adirondacks in New York.
Outreach and science
For several years, VCU has been playing a part in advancing the knowledge about the conservation and ecology of vernal pools in and around Richmond. Vernal pools are temporary ponds that fill up in the spring from fall and winter rains. Typically by mid-summer many of these ponds dry out, driving their inhabitants to begin life in the terrestrial environment.
In the spring of 2010, a community partnership was formed between researchers from VCU, the College of William and Mary, two state agencies and the Virginia Master Naturalist Program to relocate vernal pools in 16 counties surrounding Richmond that had been sampled some 20 years before.
Those original vernal pool sites were part of a research study conducted in the 1980s by Charles Blem, Ph.D., and Leann Blem, both emeritus faculty members in the VCU Department of Biology. Together, they found and examined 218 vernal pools, some of which served as home to a number of organisms - from fairy shrimp to both spotted and marbled salamanders.
A group of Master Naturalist “citizen scientist” volunteers signed on to help locate Blem’s original pool sites. They were able to search for and report on 185 pools – 85 percent of the original sites.
According to Wright, preliminary trends in the data indicate that more than 25 percent of the pools located by the Master Naturalist teams have been lost in the last 22 years. The primary cause of loss was listed as urbanization; however other causes include road work and changes in plant communities.
“Our findings show the potential for a significant loss of these habitats over time,” said Wright, who is the principal investigator on the project.
“The future protection and conservation of these often overlooked or ignored habitats will hinge on the wise management of public and private lands. Citizen Scientists can play an important role in raising public awareness of vernal pool habitats,” she said.
Nearly 30 percent of the landowners contacted gave permission to have their pools sampled. Wright said this is a relatively high percentage of participation compared with similar studies conducted by others. Private landowners seem more open to contact by members from their local community, such as the citizen scientists, when being approached about land management and conservation issues, she added.
“Our findings also indicate that local vernal pools are under pressure in both developed and rural locations. Results of this project have stimulated ideas for research collaboration with other vernal pool scientists along the East Coast. A large team effort is required to gauge impacts at the local, regional and national scales,” said Wright.
The power of citizen scientists
Eighty Master Naturalists from three chapters including Riverine, Historic Rivers and Pocahontas, participated as volunteer scientists. They have been described as “enthusiastic partners,” and they were able to cover a large amount of area in a relatively short time in search of the Blem sites.
“The blending of Master Naturalist skills with university-level research has created a successful partnership for accomplishing basic research and conservation goals,” said Wright.
Wright and Holly Houtz, outreach educator in VCU Life Sciences and the VCU Biology Department, have been instrumental in leading efforts to develop the project and connect with the community partners. James Vonesh, Ph.D., assistant professor in the VCU Department of Biology, serves as co-leader on the project and provides scientific oversight.
Last Sunday, the VCU Rice Center held a Vernal Pool Party in honor of the VA Master Naturalists who took part in the study. They visited the pools, reviewed the findings of the first year and learned plans for the year ahead. Calhoun served as the featured speaker at the event.
The research project was supported by a VCU Council for Community Engagement grant award.