By Alvin Braswell, written for use by the volunteers at Reptile and Amphibians day at the Natural Science Museum
Definition: Ephemeral ponds are aquatic sites that do not hold water all year – during normal rainfall years. They can range in size from small puddles to over a hundred acres. Ephemeral ponds have been a part of the landscape of North Carolina for many thousands of years, and whole communities of plants and animals have evolved to depend on them. The drying out phase is critical to the productivity of these ponds.
A goal of the research and management communities is to document the occurrence of ephemeral wetlands and the species that depend on them so the natural heritage of North Carolina can be conserved through responsible resource management, the public can learn about and enjoy these resources, public health will be enhanced through a healthy environment, and the species involved will be assured continued existence with healthy populations. To that end it is desirable to discover the identity, document the range, and record the biology of every species of amphibian and reptile associated with ephemeral wetland communities in North Carolina.
Initial studies of ephemeral pond breeding amphibians were started because they were understudied and because it was exciting to find so many amphibians in one place during a breeding episode. Frog choruses could be deafening and dozens of salamanders, either difficult or impossible to find otherwise, could be present.
In the 1970’s, interest in rare species became a focal point at the state and national level. Ephemeral pond communities clearly were much reduced due to a variety of human activities, and the need to document what was left was clear.
Examples of losses include: Clay-based Carolina Bays (in a natural functional state) have been reduced by about 95%; sinkhole ponds in coastal counties have been filled, trashed, drained, abused by off-road vehicles, and altered in a variety of other ways; virtually all upland ephemeral ponds in the Piedmont have been drained; and floodplain pools suffer from exaggerated flooding due to hard surface runoff. The list of what has happened and is still happening to these habitats and the species they support goes on and on. However, loss of ephemeral ponds to the plant and animal species that depend on them probably is not due to animosity toward frogs or salamanders, or other plant and animal species (with the exception of the mosquito). Many losses have occurred through ditching to make fertile soils available for agriculture or silvaculture.
Information gathered from various agencies’ and institutions’ studies has contributed to a much better understanding of the status of ephemeral pond breeding species and the communities they are a part of. Permanent documentation of populations is done with voucher specimens, scientific publications, and archived files. Determining the identity of species and genetic variation throughout their ranges is an ongoing process that requires coordinated efforts with researchers at other institutions. The natural history information gathered is not only used to advance science, but also to promote conservation through better informed environmental management and a wide variety of educational programs.
Research projects can be strictly carried out by professional scientists; however, a growing number of are geared to involve the public through “Citizen Science” initiatives. Frog call surveys are just one example.