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Vernal Pools and Ecological Landscape: Insights from Dr. Mark Southerland

If you’re unfamiliar with vernal pools, you’re not the only one. Dr. Mark Southerland, a renowned ecologist in Maryland, says it’s normal for people to not know what vernal pools are, or how they can support biodiversity.

Dr. Southerland began his work in vernal pools by asking “what issue are we not addressing.” He went on to launch two workshops for Maryland Water Monitoring Council (MWMC) to move vernal pools front and center in the field of water management. MWMC also created a task force with state agencies to see how vernal pools can be better protected and managed across the state.

What is a vernal pool, you’re wondering? They are “temporary wetlands” as Dr. Southerland says. These temporary wetlands provide habitat for animals, such as frogs and salamanders, that need to lay their eggs in water that is free from fish that would eat them. Then these new frogs and salamanders leave the vernal pool to lead a life on land. “They’re sort of like an ecosystem in your backyard.”

Vernal pools are seasonal depressional wetlands that occur under the Mediterranean climate conditions of the West Coast and in glaciated areas of northeastern and midwestern states. They are covered by shallow water for variable periods from winter to spring, but may be completely dry for most of the summer and fall. — Environmental Protection Agency,

Vernal pools aren’t meant to last all year long—they typically fill in fall and dry in summer. With the installation of a new vernal pool at Howard County Conservancy, “the critters won’t find it until the fall [...] it’ll be an additional part of biodiversity for this property,[...] And it’ll be a great educational opportunity. The Conservancy itself - they have thousands of kids that come through every year, adults walk through there, they have this kiosk that tells them what a vernal pool is, and they’ll actually see one.” Other groups, such as the Patapsco Heritage Greenway, will use the new vernal pool for training volunteers on how to survey for vernal pools throughout the region. After receiving a grant from the Chesapeake Bay Trust, the Conservancy was able to contract Ecotone to build out the site and Howard EcoWorks to landscape the area and plant natives.

Dr. Southerland believes that education of the public and protection of these wetlands are the key tasks right now. “The idea is to put a spotlight on an underappreciated part of our ecosystem.” The Howard County Conservancy vernal pool exists as an example of what is possible, and with further research, Dr. Southerland plans to push for legislation to protect them in the state of Maryland.

We want to thank the Howard County Conservancy for contracting us on this project and the Chesapeake Bay Trust for funding. We would also like to thank Ecotone for their partnership to increase biodiversity on this special property.

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