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Curious Creatures and Where to Encounter Them

Everybody needs a bit of magic in their lives now and then. Over and over, throughout this spring, I’ve sought a place where delicate pink fairies, accented with blue, hovered ethereally while many-tentacled hydras somersaulted across the soil below as cyclops wander among them. I wanted to find sea creatures happily going about their business in a woodland meadow. I even hoped to encounter bouncing fleas and dancing worms, as they might feed the fire-dwelling lizards of myth. I was looking for a window to another world. I was looking for magic—and over and over again, I found it.

OK, so the magic I sought was not quite that of fairy tales, even if the creatures I hoped to encounter share some of the same names as the beasts of legend. However, it is no less spectacular than tales of magic when a barren, cold forest floor suddenly floods beneath the rays of a springtime sun and erupts with life. Water pools in the low areas of the woodland, and that water teems with all measure of creatures as if a fantastical wizard somewhere snapped his fingers and willed them into existence from mere mud. These ephemeral springtime wetlands are called vernal pools, and they host a mind-boggling array of creatures who live life in the fast lane. They must complete their life cycles before the intense summer heat causes the pools to dry up.

Among the most beloved denizens of the vernal pool is the fairy shrimp. While they may not look much like the winged fairies of lore, they are nonetheless delicate in their form and elegant in their movements. A species of brine shrimp, they are relatives of the both brine shrimps found in the ocean and those found in the tiny aquariums maintained by anyone who has kept Sea-Monkeys® as pets.

Hydras are also common vernal pool inhabitants, though they can be tricky to spot with the naked eye. They are in the same phylum as sea anemones and jellyfish, and indeed, they bear a great resemblance to sea anemones—just on a Lilliputian scale. Without typical legs on which to walk, they frequently use a unique, somersaulting mode of locomotion to move from place to place. Their tentacles are equipped with stingers much like sea anemones, which they use to incapacitate tiny prey like mosquito larvae and water fleas.

Some of the most common vernal pool inhabitants are larvae of the caddisflies, which prefer to live a life not unlike that of tiny hermit crabs by living inside a kind of shell with only their heads and legs sticking out while their long bodies remain protected. However, unlike hermit crabs, caddisfly larvae fashion their homes themselves out of whatever sturdy detritus they can find—generally bits of fallen leaves and sticks glued together to form a sturdy tube or coil into which the insect can retreat if threatened. The materials and shape of the shell varies between species and is often used for identification.

Potentially less exciting to the uninitiated vernal pool critter hunter are the water fleas and

mosquito larvae. However, these tiny arthropods are very important members of the food chain, as they are small enough to serve as prey to a host of tiny predators. What is more, while mosquito larvae do grow into mosquitoes, water fleas do not actually feed on blood like true fleas—they are called fleas only because of their erratic, bouncing mode of locomotion. They are actually a type of crustacean.

The luckiest of vernal pool perusers may happen upon a salamander or its larvae. Unlike the legendary lizards that were born in fire, actual, real-life salamanders are amphibians with very sensitive, thin skins that must be kept moist. The species that breed in vernal pools migrate annually from their underground burrows to the pools in which they themselves hatched in order to breed. They then leave their hundreds of eggs to hatch and fend for themselves as larvae that vaguely resemble tiny versions of the adults, albeit with the addition of feathery gills to breathe in their watery nursery.

Those who wish to take their vernal pool exploration a bit further might consider taking a sample of the water home and adding it to an aquarium with an air stone for circulation. Within days to weeks, the eggs of as-yet unhatched animals will hatch, and the animals that were too small to be easily spotted will grow to a size that can be revealed to the naked eye (and revealed still better by aid of a magnifying glass or microscope).

Enjoy the boom of vernal pool life while it lasts! By mid-summer, the pools have typically dried up. The larvae of the animals that dwelt there will have metamorphosed into adults and flown or crawled away, and the adults who could not leave the pool will have died off and left only their eggs behind to wait out the dry season, sit suspended through the cold winter, and wait until the pool fills with water again the following spring. Vernal pools are an ecosystem unto themselves, made magical by the fact that their fleeting nature does nothing to deter the diverse array of bizarre, temporally-bound animals that call them home.

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