Frogs and salamanders get a new habitat at Ohiopyle State Park

Written by on April 22, 2021

Frogs and salamanders get a new habitat at Ohiopyle State Park

By Kara Holsopple / The Allegheny Front’

April 22, 2021

In the spring, little pockets of water pool between hummocks of dirt and native plants, providing the ideal habitat for salamanders, frogs and toads to breed. Animals born in these vernal pools will return here to mate. Photo: Kara Holsopple / The Allegheny Front

Frogs and salamanders get a new place to breed thanks to a restoration project at Ohiopyle State Park in western Pennsylvania. The Allegheny Front’s Kara Holsopple recently visited to learn more. 

Listen to the story.

KARA: Driving up a gravel road, towards the site, you see the old outbuildings of the former Ohiopyle Therapeutic Wilderness Camp, a residential program for kids that provided mental and behavioral treatment until 2008. 

The camp also left a giant cement swimming pool that needed to be removed.

ALBERT: And it was an engineering feat. It was a bit of a marvel..

KARA: That’s JoAnn Albert of the Pennsylvania Natural Heritage Program at the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy.

The site, about a half-acre, is between a spring and a small stream.

ALBERT: And there was piping from both sources of water into this pond that was very deep cement with rebar, a big dam at the end down there up to nine feet deep at the far end. 

KARA: She says it was a liability, so last summer,  the park, the conservancy and partners broke up the cement with heavy machinery, and set about restoring this area to a more natural state.

ALBERT: We created a little series of vernal ponds and this wet meadow, which looks sort of lumpy right now. But it’ll settle out into a like sort of a natural hummocky, wet meadow.

KARA: It still looks a little like a construction site, because the buttonbush and other native species planted last year haven’t sprouted up yet. But it’s the little puddles, between the mounds of dirt that are the main attraction.

ALBERT: A vernal pool is sort of an ephemeral wetland, so it’s designed to dry out annually or at least every few years. So the reason we want that to happen is to keep fish from living there because the animals that use it have better breeding success when they don’t have a predator in the pond with them.

HOST: The animals they’re hoping to attract are amphibians that have to travel from the surrounding woodland, where they live most of their lives, to the vernal pools to mate and lay their eggs. The eggs hatch, the larvae develop and then leave the pool and head into the forest before the pool dries out.  

ALBERT: In this particular area, those animals were using degraded habitat like roadruts and little puddles that might not remain wet long enough to support the life cycle. So there definitely was a lack of habitat here for them.

ALBERT: Oh, look. This is a little Red-spotted Newt. How cool were they look at him go. These are the ones can live in the more permanent pods as well as vernal pools. So these guys were here and in the big cement pond, but they’re still taking advantage of this more natural habitat. And I like to think they might be happier here. So but look how cute is. Its little yellow belly 

KARA: Ryan Miller, a zoologist with the Pennsylvania Natural Heritage Program is also here to show me some of the other species they’re checking on today. 

MILLER: The sides are mostly solid and compacted

HOST: He leads me along the edge of the meadow, and around a deep, spring-fed pool. Water bubbles out of the hillside and makes a slow serpentine to the bottom, where the concrete of the old swimming pool has been buried. 

MILLER: Let’s head down here. Watch yourself. NAT SLASH SQUISH

KARA: In between is the marshy meadow.

MILLER: So what we have here, if you look real close, you have what were two egg masses of wood frogs that were left here probably about a week ago, maybe less. And now the tadpoles are hatching out of the eggs.

KARA:  Hundreds of them. They’re dark brown and just a couple of centimeters long, swimming around the edges of these gelatinous round masses.

MILLER: They’re really, really kind of alien looking.

MILLER: And that’s a spring peeper frog, they’re only about the size maybe of a quarter or a little bit larger than a quarter are very, very small, very hard to find, too.

They’re brown with a little darker brown X on their back is a way to identify them.

KARA: Jefferson salamanders. spotted salamanders, and green frogs are other species they expect to use this habitat. Vernal pools face threats like tree succession, where the surrounding woods encroach on the wetland, and human development. Warming temperatures from climate change could also impact these habitats.

MILLER: The period when the pools stay wet could potentially become shorter, might not stay wet enough long enough for those eggs and larvae to develop into adults. And we could see a shorter breeding window.

KARA: Albert says wetland restoration is special because when people change the landscape with infrastructure like swimming pools and dams, often it’s changed forever. Not so here.

ALBERT: This may look messy right now, but this is going to be heaven for some of these little creatures that we’re targeting.

KARA: For the toads trilling in the meadow, it already is. For The Allegheny Front, I’m Kara Hosopple.

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