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Scouting salamanders

VCU partners with community to raise awareness of threatened wetland communities across the commonwealth

Featured photo
Two Master Naturalists, Cris Pond and Mike Schlosser from the Pocahontas Chapter sample a vernal pool in Charles City, Va. Photo courtesy of James Vonesh, Ph.D./VCU

When biologist Charles Blem, Ph.D., retired and cleared out his office, he passed on a beaten-up 20 year-old notebook filled with hundreds of data sheets with hand-written field notes to his successor James Vonesh, Ph.D., an assistant professor of biology at Virginia Commonwealth University.

Blem, a former professor of biology at VCU who was intimately familiar with the natural history of amphibians and reptiles in the Richmond area, had conducted a survey of more than 200 vernal pools and its inhabitants in 17 counties surrounding the Richmond metro area.

Blem and his wife, Leanne, a former VCU instructor of biology, together found and counted a unique assemblage of critters including salamanders, both spotted and marbled varieties, and fairy shrimp. The Blems, now retired and residing in Montana, had published two scientific papers based on this dataset in the 1990s.

The field notes also detailed the whereabouts of these vernal pools, which are temporary ponds that fill up in the spring due to the winter rains. Typically by mid-summer many of these ponds dry out, driving their inhabitants to seek refuge elsewhere.

Blem’s notebook not only contained valuable data, but it also represented a snapshot of wetland communities across Virginia in the early 1980s. For the most part, these communities had been untouched by human activity.

Now, some 20 years later, Vonesh and his colleague, Anne Wright, coordinator of VCU Life Sciences Outreach Education, wondered if the original snapshot recorded in the pages of Blem’s field book had changed considerably.

Collaborate and listen
They established a unique community partnership between researchers from VCU, the College of William & Mary, state agencies and a statewide volunteer scientist network to come together for a unique treasure hunt of sorts - they’ve decided to relocate those ponds and see if those wetland communities still exist and support amphibians.

Through the support of one of seven 2010 VCU Council for Community Engagement grant awards, the team has sprung into spring doing a lot of searching, locating and counting of ponds and critters.

Wright, who is the lead principal investigator on the project, and Holly Houtz, outreach educator in VCU Life Sciences, have been instrumental in leading efforts to develop the project and connect with the community partners.

“Vernal pools are critical habitats for certain species of amphibians – without the pools, they don’t survive. We are trying to raise awareness of these habitats so if people know and understand their importance, and if they are inclined, they can help preserve them,” said Wright.

“Few people realize the importance of these ecosystems to amphibians. In the big picture, we are not certain how these amphibians contribute overall, but there are generally an abundance – and their numbers alone may point to a critical role in the environment overall,” she said.

Challenges and The Human Footprint
Before researchers started their field work on this project, they had to decide where to look. This presented an interesting challenge: Blem’s data had been collected prior to the explosion of the digital age – there was no GPS and computers were much less practical. Plus, Blem had known the area extremely well.

This meant that Wright, Vonesh and the team would need to rely heavily on the directions outlined in the notebook – for example, ‘‘Behind the wood shed on all-state road 54.”

Fortunately, they were able to reconstruct Blem’s directions the best they could through collaboration with Matthias Leu, Ph.D., a conservation biologist and assistant professor from the College of William & Mary.

Leu had led efforts on a project called The Human Footprint in the West. That project examined the landscape level impact of humans throughout the western United States.
Leu was now interested in exploring the questions around the human impacts on the Eastern landscapes and this project fit in well with his interests - looking at the urbanization effects on vernal pools and urban sprawl.

Leu and student Rachel Jablonski read and reviewed all Blem’s notes and made the best guess using GPS and additional maps to search. They constructed maps and digitized all the materials.

Joining forces
Now that they had locations on a map, the team needed to get in the field and actually find them. Enter the Virginia Master Naturalists – more than 80 “citizen scientist” volunteers who have been through a certification program and were trained in Virginia’s natural history. Each year, the Master Naturalists dedicate themselves to 40 hours of service in natural history-conservation projects.

“We had a ready-made team because many of the Virginia Master Naturalists volunteers already were acquainted with the pools through participation in advanced-training workshops in vernal pools which I lead for three chapters each spring. They signed up in droves,” Wright said.

Each chapter contributed approximately 30 volunteers and they are working in teams of two to see if these vernal ponds still exist – and if they do, they’ll need to determine if they are supporting salamanders and others. Each team was assigned five or six pools to locate.

Once a pool is found, the team contacts the land owner and provides them a permission card that can be mailed back to the team allowing them to visit the property and sample the pool and determine which salamanders are living in those pools.

The team is also working with Lou Verner with the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries who heads the Wildlife Mappers application that allows the teams online access to enter data on the pools they have relocated and sampled and to describe findings.

“This way, information about the species presence and critical habitats are in a state-wide database that will help build a picture of not only vernal pools in our area, but as we expand to other chapters of Master Naturalists throughout Virginia,” said Vonesh, who serves as co-leader on the project and provides scientific oversight.

Moving forward, the team is planning projects that examine how land use has shifted key factors in food web ecology and perhaps will use genetic tools to examine issues of pool connectivity.

“Ultimately, we see this system of vernal pools as a natural laboratory for studying the spatial ecology of vernal pool organisms along an urban to rural gradient,” Vonesh said. “We also see an ongoing collaboration between the scientific team and the citizen scientists of the Master Naturalists program as an ideal way to expand the scale of our research and to raise public awareness about these fascinating aquatic communities.”

Anne Wright, coordinator of VCU Life Sciences Outreach Education shows samples of the variety of vernal pool to Sathya Achia Abraham, science writer with VCU, and Master Naturalist, John Votta, Pocahontas Chapter. Photo courtesy of James Vonesh, Ph.D./VCU
Anne Wright, coordinator of VCU Life Sciences Outreach Education shows samples of the variety of vernal pool to Sathya Achia Abraham, science writer with VCU, and Master Naturalist, John Votta, Pocahontas Chapter. Photo courtesy of James Vonesh, Ph.D./VCU
Map of 16 Virginia counties indicating Blem vernal pool site locations. Image courtesy Holly Houtz
Map of 16 Virginia counties indicating Blem vernal pool site locations. Image courtesy Holly Houtz
Two Master Naturalists, Cris Pond and Mike Schlosser  from the Pocahontas Chapter sample a vernal pool in Charles City, Va. Photo courtesy of James Vonesh, Ph.D./VCU
Two Master Naturalists, Cris Pond and Mike Schlosser from the Pocahontas Chapter sample a vernal pool in Charles City, Va. Photo courtesy of James Vonesh, Ph.D./VCU