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