Friday, November 29, 2013

Gone a-hunting

Given that it’s hunting season (are you and your dog wearing orange out in the woods?), this seems an appropriate topic to ruminate upon. A video was posted to youtube recently which documents a salamander collecting trip on state property. I was disturbed by the video, but not for the same reason as some other folks I know.

For better or worse, there are no prohibitions on collecting (read: hunting) a wide variety of native wildlife in Massachusetts; this includes most of our amphibians and reptiles, with the exception of the state-listed Endangered, Threatened, and Special Concern species. There are also some species, such as the Spotted Salamander (Ambystoma maculatum), that are on a “watch list” and can’t be possessed without a special permit from the state (listed here). There’s an open season on everything else. There's not even a bag limit - you can possess as many as you can catch - on snappers, Green frogs and Bullfrogs.
So what’s disturbing about the video this kid shot in the Blue Hills? If you watch the technique, logs and stones are flipped, cast aside, and left to roll away. Imagine a giant that comes into your village, curious about humans. It tears the roof off of your house, picks you up to poke and prod, then decides to put you back on the ground and move on. You look up and shout, “Hey, jerk! put my roof back!” but to no avail. You’re left out in the driveway with compromised shelter.

Collecting has its place in growing up and in exciting kids to become scientists. State land is “our nature,” to paraphrase one major landowning state agency, and people will collect wildlife from state lands. If they’re collecting according to the Bay State’s hunting and fishing laws, then I say have at it. But for crying out loud, put the roof back on the house. It’s the ethical way to pillage. ~ MR Burne

Monday, September 16, 2013

'Tis the Season...

…for metamorphs!

Fall is when a lot of the amphibians that hatched earlier in the year complete the aquatic phase of their life cycle and make the move to dry land. Metamorphosis is quite a feat, and can be a treacherous time.
Metamorphosing amphibians are found around the saturated edges of their natal pools throughout late summer and into fall, hiding among wet leaves and under cover objects, as they complete their change into terrestrial animals.

Spotted salamander metamorph. Photo by Burne
This is a Spotted Salamander (Ambystoma maculatum) that is in the process of completing its metamorphosis. It was found at a vernal pool in Medford, MA this past weekend, and is about 1.5 inches long. Just behind the jaw and in front of the fore-limb is a dark stub, the remnants of the big bushy gills that are so distinctive in pond-breeding salamander larvae. The tail looks short and dark; it is in transition from the larval, flattened, swimming tail, to the rounded adult character.

Finding wee metamorphs is neat, but it’s somewhat dangerous (for them, at least). It’s very easy to step on these delicate little guys and you’d never even know it. Keep an eye out for little wood frogs bounding recklessly around the forest floor, and gently turn logs or leaves at the wet edges of a pool in which you’ve seen eggs or heard a wood frog chorus. Chances are, you’ll get a sweet little reward this time of year. Just don't forget to replace cover objects you turn - remember it's someone's house!

Thursday, August 22, 2013

An unusual "moss"

It’s not so much that I feel compelled to point out that there’s a lot to see out in our vernal pools at this time of year; it just turns out that I’m finding some neat stuff lately. You should go out and look, too!

Mossy stick, or something else?
Here’s something you don’t see every day. About a month ago I was out with the Walden Pond State Reservation’s Junior Rangers leading a ponding activity in a vernal pool on the state reservation. I noticed a fuzzy section of a buttonbush shrub stem just below the waterline, which at first appeared to be covered in moss. I’m not sure what clicked to suggest it wasn't moss, but something did. I was pretty sure that it was a bryozoan, or moss animal, of some sort (one of the benefits of taking an aquatic macro invertebrates class with a professor who spent much of his career focused on esoteric animals is that you become aware of some unusual things). I went back a couple of days ago to collect some.

Doesn't look like much from here!
Back in the lab, I put the stick into a neat contraption for observing wee beasties, and was thrilled to see the fuzz turning into what I was expecting – a moss animal. It keys out to Plumatella recluse, for which there are only 6 other records in Massachusetts! Moss animals are colonial organisms in the Phylum Ectoprocta. The colony is made up of macroscopic zooids which can create a fairly large colony encrusting a substrate. Much like a coral or hydra, moss animals have tentacles that they extend, and wait for food items to become ensnared. In this species, the tentacles on the lophophore are arranged in a horseshoe shape.

Close-up of P. recluse zooids, lophophores, and sessoblasts.
Moss animals reproduce both asexually and sexually, the latter resulting in a planktonic larva that can establish a new colony. The third photograph shows small, brown “dots” throughout the mass. These are the result of one form of asexual reproduction they employ, and importantly, the way this species gets through dry periods in vernal pools. As environmental stresses increase (ie, the pool starts to dry out), individual zooids begin to produce statoblasts, which are little, round capsules containing the germ of the next colony. These either float (floatoblasts) and get carried away to other places, or stay attached to the parent substrate (sessoblasts) and await the cue to start the process all over again.

Sometimes sticks get fuzzy with moss and algae. Sometimes, though, they get fuzzy with really unusual animals masquerading as moss and algae. Keep an eye out! ~ MR Burne

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Coolest. Frog. Ever.

Sitting on damp dirt and leaves, he's dark.
This little fellow showed up on the door of my office building a couple of days ago. He’s been visiting for a short bit to ham it up for the cameras. This is, of course, the Gray Treefrog, Hyla versicolor, the coolest frog ever. Well, at least the coolest frog native to the northeastern US. In my humble opinion, anyway. Coolness is, after all, subjective.

After 20 minutes sitting on white paper, not so much.
Gray treefrogs are a sort of meaty frog, getting close to two inches long when they’re full grown. They have suction cup toes, so they can spiderman their way up trees, the side of a building, glass, your hand, whatever. A few years back, a gray treefrog was found hiding under a roof shingle next to a dormer on the third floor of our office building. Not “natural” habitat, but apparently it can make for happy frogs.

Gray treefrogs are masters of disguise, changing color to more or less match their background. Their color range includes dark chocolate to nearly ash-white, and a beautiful emerald green. The two photos here were taken about 20 minutes apart, so the transition is relatively quick.

Breeding for this species is typically in late April or early May, though that’s variable and can happen later in the spring/early summer as they develop very quickly. Here’s a link to a clip of their beautiful, bird-like call: At this time of year, tadpoles have metamorphosed or are very close, and young-of-the-year are decked out in a brilliant emerald color, and are about the size of a full-grown spring peeper, or three-quarters of an inch. I've most often found them hanging out on the leaves of buttonbush and other shrubs in the vernal pools they (presumably) grew up in. I hear adults calling from the trees on the oak and pine hill up behind my office every now and again, which will continue through the summer. Just reminding us that, even though we can't see them right now, the coolest frog ever is close by, I guess.

It’s easy to forget that there’s a lot of interesting life happening in vernal pools in late summer and early fall, but that’s when a lot of animals that started off in the Big Night rush of March and April “graduate” and start kick off the next generation. ~MR Burne

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Finding Fairies

Male E. vernalis by Leo Kenney
Fairy shrimp are wonderful, interesting, beautiful – pick your gushing demonstratives, they’re just neat. They are vernal pool dependent and have a life cycle that is pretty impressive; they go ahead and die to get through the dry period.

Fairy shrimp are relatively large (about an inch and a half), slow-moving, and rather easy to detect if they happen to be present in a vernal pool. There aren’t many species of fairy shrimp in any given region. In Massachusetts, we’re sure there are two, the common Eubranchipus vernalis, and the uncommon Eubranchipus intricatus (it’s possible that there’s one or maybe even two others). They aren’t difficult to tell apart if you know what you’re looking at, but it turns out that very few people actually know what they’re looking at when it comes to fairy shrimp.

Fairy shrimp are fairly ubiquitous on the landscape; wherever you find vernal pools, you have a pretty good chance of turning up fairies in the early spring. However, E. intricatus is rare, known from very few sites – around the year 2000, only 7 localities in the state were known. It's a state listed Species of Special Concern.

So that brings us to the topic at hand. Back around 2002 the Vernal Pool Association decided that we should find out if the rare fairy shrimp is actually rare by doing a lot of sampling around the state and identifying what we found. Since we’re small and few, we thought it’d be a great idea to invite “citizen scientists” to collect fairy shrimp from pools they knew and send them to us. If we received samples from lots of folks from all over the state, we’d have a pretty good chance of finding out if the Intricate Fairy Shrimp (our rare one) is actually rare, or if it’s just been suffering from under-reporting because no one ever knows what species they’re looking at.

Fast forward to 2013. A fairly large collection of vials has been rattling around three different offices for nearly 10 years, the unfortunate result of not being a high priority for anyone for a long time. I recently took a substantial chunk of time and effort to go through the entire collection, confirm IDs, re-label, reunite location data with samples, and turn all of that citizen science effort into actual scientific data.

Here are the results of note:

15 observers sent us samples from:
90 different sites in:
30 different towns throughout Massachusetts.

Our common fairy shrimp, Eubranchipus vernalis, was found in 78 vernal pools
Our state-listed fairy shrimp, Eubranchipus intricatus, was found in 12.

So the data took a long time to sort out, mainly because life can have a way of getting in the way. But we came up with some great information, and confirmation that that state listing is pretty valid. Our Citizen Scientists have more than doubled the number of known locations, from 7 to 19, and helped create a pretty incredible collection that will live at the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology. Maybe someday it will play a roll in someone’s Ph.D. Thesis or help us better understand why one of these species is so much more common than the other.

Interested in participating in the survey? We’d love to get it going again. Get in touch with the Vernal Pool Association at and we’ll get you geared up!
~ MRB 7/25/13

Thursday, April 18, 2013

From my perch

On my perch, above the dance. 

Spring is chugging right along here around Boston. It’s been terrifically busy, and I’m not getting out to the woods nearly as much as I’d like. Yesterday, I peeled myself away from the computer at work and took a walk to my favorite little vernal pool near the office though.

What a treat! The sun was shining, my jacket was too hot, and I was able to spend fifteen or twenty minutes doing nothing but watching stuff. Some years back, a sizable red maple growing at the edge of the pool toppled over in the direction of the pool. The trunk itself is about ten inches in diameter, and lies, now horizontal, about three feet above the water’s surface. Enough of the root mass is still buried that the tree seems to be doing just fine, and several branches have started growing straight up as though they thought they were growing from the ground. It’s beginning to flower.

I got myself settled out on the trunk, about ten feet from shore. I was perched there, about three feet above the surface of the water, looking into about three feet of water. The first thing to catch my eye were the fairies, doing their lovely dance, lazing about, in and out of shadow, looking for love or to be left alone, or whatever fairy shrimp look for. It brought to mind Henry Thoreau’s observation on April 16, 1855, of the “remarkably forked tail-fin” of what he thought were dragonfly larvae but what were almost without doubt fairy shrimp.

Soon, big predaceous diving beetles, backswimmers, and water striders grabbed my attention. I was fascinated by the behavior of the large beetles; they were cruising around but keeping to the shadow cast by branches, staying out of the sun-lit water column. I was really curious to see if any would crash the party and grab a fairy shrimp, but alas, didn’t see any acts of predation.

After I’d sat still for several minutes, the forest started to forget that I was there, and a few wood frogs began their clacking calling. Silly boys, they’re probably going to have to wait until next year. The great mass of wood frog eggs have already begun to hatch at the west edge of the pool.

Soon enough (too soon, really), spring will be over, and we’ll be screaming head-long into summer. There’s still a lot of spring to observe yet, though, if I can just make the time to get out. I hope you’re getting out more than I, and find a nice perch from which to watch.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Little Night

Spotted salamander waiting for love. Photo by Burne
In the northeastern US, we’re getting ready for the big start to the spring, as marked by the salamander and frog migrations we've come to refer to as “Big Night.”

The animals that rely on vernal pools for breeding (we’ll do a post on this topic someday and link back to this, we promise) are putting their offspring in something they know is going to dry out. Hurry up or die, kid. This is what makes a vernal pool what it is. Relative safety from a big predator (fish) with the down-side risk that you’ll die a slow, painful, air-soaked death.

To improve chances for little Johnny and EmmaMay, salamanders and frogs get going on breeding as soon as humanly possible…so to speak. They get started on their breeding migration as soon as the ground is thawed and they get a nice, rainy night with temperatures around 40 F (4 C). This results in a highly synchronized breeding migration – lots of animals out and about when conditions are perfect. We’ve come to know this as Big Night. Check out Sarah Lamstein’s book of the same title – we love it.

Salamander thinking "this is not what I meant."
Here’s the thing: lots of people get excited about Big Night, and anxious and stressed over not missing it. In point of fact, it’s a bit of a myth. To be sure, migration in the spring is highly synchronized among vernal pool breeding amphibians, and in some years when conditions are spot-on: wow; it’s something to experience. But if you were just too tired to get out last Thursday night, or you had tickets to the theatre, don’t sweat it: there are opportunities yet to see the salamander stampedes.

North of Boston, there are salamanders in vernal pools (see the first picture, taken last Thursday). I’ve heard reports of wood frogs calling north of Boston on a sunny day early last week. There are even reports of egg masses (whaaa?!). But we haven’t seen the bulk of the migration yet; it’s still early. What we will actually see over the course of a typical spring is a number of “Little Nights” when animals are arriving at their breeding pools and joining the party.

So don’t fret! Get out and check out your local vernal pools regularly through the early spring, monitor roads that have high crossing mortality (be careful, please!), and see the great annual amphibian migrations that mark the start to the spring! ~ MR Burne

Monday, March 25, 2013

Boing! Goes Spring

All of that snow on the ground does make spring feel a long way off, even though we’ve passed the equinox. While we wait for the snow to melt and frogs to get hopping, some interesting things are already out and hopping about.

Collembola are about 3 mm long - tiny! Photo by Kenney
Collembola, a.k.a. “springtails,” can be found on the forest floor and near wetlands where they’re beginning their annual breeding congregations. Springtails are closely related to insects but in their own taxonomic class (or subclass, depending on whom you talk to). They are tiny – really tiny – measuring much less than 6 mm in most cases. Around Boston, most of our Collembola are 2 or 3 mm. They are all black, have a distinct head with jointed antennae, a thorax with three pairs of legs, and an abdomen with no legs.

Breeding congregation on a small puddle. Photo by Burne
What makes Collembola particularly unique is an appendage on the end of the abdomen called a furcula. This forked appendage is held against the bottom of the abdomen, and when released, causes the animal to be launched several centimeters, giving them their moniker. Since they’re often found at the end of winter on snow, they’re also known as “snow fleas.”

In a funny sort of symmetry, Collembola have a mating strategy very similar to our favorite vernal pool vertebrate, the Spotted Salamander. Males deposit a stalked spermatophore that females gather; there’s no contact between the two.

Most Collembola are terrestrial and will be found throughout forested areas. There are many species that are semi-aquatic, though, and these will often be found around vernal pools, especially in spring. They utilize the water surface for breeding and feeding; they will often be seen bounding around the surface of a pool with all of the other organisms that are busily going about their business.

Wee little snow fleas on the trail. Photo by Burne
So take a close look around you on trails in the woods as you’re waiting for the snow to melt. There’s a lot to see, especially if you get low and look closely! ~MR Burne

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Happy Vernal Equinox!

As in years past (maybe every spring that I've found myself looking closely at vernal pools), I am so happy to see half a foot of snow on the ground at the vernal equinox. There's so much to do in planning for this year's field work - workshops to organize, field trips to plan, priorities to set, &ct - and so little time to do it all!

So sleep, my slithery and hoppity friends, sleep under the warm blanket of fresh snow. I hear there's more on the way later this week. As Mr. Burns would say, "Eeexxcellent." There is much planning to do. ~ MR Burne