In the cold weeks of January, a group of students led by biology professor Dr. Kristen Cecala built a drift fence surrounding the vernal pool at the end of Brakefield Road to monitor amphibian populations. The drift fence is composed of a sheet of metal that reaches under the surface of the soil and pitfall traps placed at regular intervals on both sides of the fence. When amphibians try to enter or exit the wetland, they encounter the fence and then follow it until they fall into a bucket.
Dr. Jonathan Evans’ Conservation Biology class visited the drift fence last week to learn about the unique biology of the salamanders that breed in the vernal pool. The class was able to find spotted salamanders (Ambystoma maculatum), which are a charismatic mole salamanders with black skin and yellow/orange spots. These salamanders primarily live under leaves in the soil, but make a yearly migration in February to mate in vernal pools, which are ephemeral collections of freshwater. The ephemeral nature of these pools eliminates fish predation on the salamander eggs and larvae.
Each day, students in Dr. Cecala’s Amphibian Ecology class visit the wetland to check the pitfall traps for amphibians. Spotted salamanders are measured, weighed, tagged, and then released on the other side of the fence. Using this information, they will be able to determine the population size, mortality, and birth rates for the spotted salamander population associated with this vernal pool. This long-term monitoring program will offer many opportunities for education and student research.