'Citizen scientists' wade into shallow waters

By Denise Coffey - Staff Writer
Pomfret - posted Tue., Apr. 12, 2011
Paula Coughlin holds a bucket containing wood frog eggs during the 'citizen scientist' training in Pomfret on April 8. Photos by Denise Coffey.
Paula Coughlin holds a bucket containing wood frog eggs during the 'citizen scientist' training in Pomfret on April 8. Photos by Denise Coffey.

Paula Coughlin is a busy woman now that she’s retired from teaching. She has traded in classrooms full of 12- and 13-year-olds for hands-on, class and field work with adults as the coordinator of five “Citizen Science” programs at the Connecticut Audubon Society Center at Pomfret. She is currently involved in the vernal pool inventory training, a program aimed at documenting vernal pools in northeastern Connecticut.

“Citizen Science” programs are becoming increasingly accepted as ways for scientists to gather research data. Lay people can help when projects are oversized, such as investigating woodlands for vernal pools and the creatures that might inhabit them. The programs have provided reliable and useful information to scientists who might not have collected it otherwise.

There has been widespread interest in vernal pool inventory over the last several years because amphibian populations have been declining globally. In 1995, Connecticut passed legislation giving municipal inland/wetlands agencies regulatory authority over vernal watercourses.

By training volunteers to go out and collect data on their own, more of these pools can be accounted for and more data can be collected. The hope is that by getting this information into the hands of decision-makers, the pools can be protected and the public educated about the crucial link they provide for so many species.

Vernal pools are small bodies of water that usually dry up in the summer. They are pools of water with no outlet and contain no fish. They can as small as a few square feet.

In April and May, these small pools become important breeding grounds for frogs, toads and salamanders. They provide habitat crucial to the survival of certain wildlife species. And because they are so small, they usually do not appear on wetland maps.

That’s where Coughlin and her citizen scientists come in. In 2009 alone, 111 CAS trained volunteers went through the Pomfret Audubon’s five Citizen Science projects. They accrued more than 800 hours of research.

On April 8, Coughlin taught seven residents from as far away as East Haven how to recognize a vernal pool and the signs that breeding has taken place there. She showed slides of wood frogs and spotted salamanders and passed out copies of DEP studies and articles from “Conservation in Practice.” After pointing out as much as she could in class, she led the seven students into the field. After all, citizen scientists have to get their hands dirty.

Grace Jacobson, a member of the Woodstock Conservation Commission, was able to get close enough with her waders to scoop a wood frog's egg mass from a pool just a few hundred feet from Route 169. Coughlin showed it to her students so they would know exactly what they should be looking for. The mass was the size of a softball and the embryos within were kidney-shaped. Algae had turned the egg mass green, but this was beneficial for the eggs, Coughlin said.

She had everyone look at the assessment forms. In order to collect reliable data on vernal pools, questions have to be specific and standard. Volunteers are asked to answer seven questions about the physical habitat and conduct a biological assessment. If they can take photographs, they must indicate the facing direction. Comments are encouraged. They are asked to indicate the presence and counts of egg masses from wood frogs and two different species of salamanders, and the presence of tadpoles or adults.

She took the group to a second vernal poo,l where they found glistening egg masses floating near a submerged branch. There is a lot of predation that occurs in vernal pools, Coughlin said. Snapping turtles will feed there and bull frogs will eat everything in sight if they chance upon them.

The dangers for volunteers are less dramatic, but still warrant caution. The bottoms of pools can be slippery. Thickets and poison ivy can make access to the pools difficult as vegetation starts to grow in early May. The inventory season is quick. Volunteers must work with the time frame the frogs and salamanders use. They must get out and find the pools when they are full and when egg masses have been laid.

Coughlin has helped Pomfret identify more than 70 vernal pools. The information collected over a period of four years in now in the hands of the Pomfret Conservation Committee. Woodstock is trying to create an inventory of its own, as is Canterbury. The data from the assessment forms will be collected and put into a database. This information will be passed along to people who make land use and conservation decisions.

“We all need homes,” Coughlin said.

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