The Hopkins Forest vernal ponds were glowing at 4 a.m. on a damp spring morning. When we shined our headlamps across the water, the surface shimmered with speckles of light, which moved up and down in the slight breeze. But they weren’t broken pieces of falling stars, or fairy dust, or phosphorescent creatures – they were hundreds of pairs of frogs’ eyes, reflecting the glare of our headlamps back at us.
Professor of Biology Rob Savage, his son Noah, Claudia Forrester ’18 and I visited the Hopkins Forest vernal ponds early on an misty Monday morning a few weeks ago. Every spring, the two vernal ponds – temporary pools of water which hosts to distinctive plants and animals – fill with amphibians that travel from all around the forest to mate and breed. Like clockwork, the first rainy Williamstown night above 40 degrees brings salamanders crawling down to the pools. They join thousands of wood frogs, which have thawed from months of frozen-solid hibernation and travelled miles to reach the place of their birth to mate and spawn. It is an amphibian orgy of epic proportions.
Biology Professor Henry Art lived in a house near Hopkins Forest in the 1970s. He remembers hearing the noisy croaks of thousands of wood frogs and peepers erupt in early spring, audible even at a great distance from the ponds. Little attention was paid to the ponds until 2005, when two College alums and a local real estate developer looked to develop a parcel of land adjacent to Hopkins Forest which included the ponds. They approached Professor Art about conducting a yearlong analysis of the ponds to ensure that they could get approval for development from the state government.
Art agreed to take on the task with the help of others, including Tom Tyning, professor of environmental studies at Berkshire Community College and Hopkins Forest Manager Drew Jones. Tyning, an expert on amphibians and frogs, guessed that they might find around 300 yellow-spotted salamanders. The team set out a fence around the pond, with field traps scattered on either side. Regular documentation of the species collected in the buckets gave insight into which species were entering and leaving the pond at certain times. When the buckets began turning up overflowing with the amphibians, they realized the estimate of 300 yellow-spotted salamanders was far from the accurate – they ended up estimating over 3000 salamanders and many more wood frogs. Analysis of the ponds and their inhabitants quickly became a community project: students from the college, Berkshire Community College, and MCLA participated, as did other local residents. The teams documented the size, weight, length, and spot patterns of the salamanders they caught.
Shortly into their analysis, they made a discovery that threw a wrench into the developers’ plans. They found a Jefferson salamander, considered to be a rare and endangered species, in one of the buckets. The Jefferson salamander is grey, opalescent, and tends to be smaller than the yellow spotted salamander. Upon this discovery, the Massachusetts State Government declared the territory a preservable habitat and development of the land was halted. In the years following, teams of professors, students and community residents have continued to monitor the pond and its inhabitants. Salamanders can live up to 15 years, and so they have been able to trace some of the same salamanders throughout the seasons. One particular salamander with an orange spot on his tail, whom they gave the name “Orange Blossom Express,” was seen year after year. Professor of Computer Science Andrea Danyluk is currently developing a software program that will use analysis of the yellow spots on the salamanders’ tails to track the individuals over time. Each salamander’s pattern of spots is as unique to them as a fingerprint.
Savage, Forrester, Noah and I walked backed from the vernal ponds toward campus just as the sky was getting light. We had hoped to be there on the night the salamanders all descended on the pond but found mostly wood frogs and spring peepers. Noah went back to the pond the night after in hope of seeing the salamanders, and the frogs were almost entirely quiet. The amphibians’ presence in the ponds is fleeting. After they have mated and spawned, many of the salamanders return to the dark soils in the woods and the most of the frogs scatter throughout the forest. But if you find yourself in Hopkins Forest on a rainy night in April, follow the chorus of croaks to the vernal ponds. If they’re overflowing with amphibians, you’ll know spring is here.