Vernal Pool Research

Vernal PoolsThe mission of the University of California's Natural Reserve System is to contribute to the scientific understanding and wise management of the Earth and its natural systems by supporting university-level teaching, research and public service. 

Under this guiding principle, the UC Merced Reserve is available for a wide variety of research investigations by university faculty and students. UC Merced faculty, including those in Life and Environmental Science Group and those affiliated with the Sierra Nevada Research Institute, study a wide range of subjects from forest ecology and biogeochemistry to population genetics, soil science, snow pack dymanics and climate change. They and other researchers will have access to the Reserve for experiments and studies.

The Reserve lands are also environmental mitigation lands and are subject to federal and state permit conditions and regulations. In addition, environmental easements serve to protect the lands in perpetuity from damage or development. Those conducting research in the Reserve must comply with all applicable regulations and guidelients.  As a result, there are restrictions that may limit some types of activities that may take place. One important reason for limited access and careful scrutiny of planned research is because the vernal pools support a number of federally listed species. Depending on the type of research envisioned, researchers may need federal and state permits in order to carry out studies or experiments.

All projects that take place in a vernal pool (for example, soil and water sampling, seed collecting, sampling aquatic invertebrates or amphibians) will require special state and federal permits. Projects in upland areas that involve soil study do not require special permits as long as researchers avoid sampling in areas (at least 15 feet away) where there are ground squirrel burrows or other habitats that could support California Tiger Salamanders. All studies involving soil collections, soil coring or soil excavations will require review before they can be initiated.

Several UC Merced faculty members are conducting research and education projects in the Reserve lands. In the future, as more faculty and students learn of research possibilities within the Reserve, many new projects will be initiated. The presence of federally endangered species within the Reserve requires that the land be managed carefully so as to avoid negative impacts to these organisms that could arise from research activities. Wise stewardship of this site requires protocols and special management efforts to ensure compliance with applicable state and federal mandates. 

During the decade-long process of determining the location of the campus and assessing the environmental impacts of campus construction, various state and federal resource agencies, as well as environmental consulting companies, have conducted surveys of soils, vernal pool distribution, biodiversity, and the occurrence of rare and endangered flora and fauna. As a result, a substantial number of informative reports exist that document environmental conditions of the Reserve. These reports are an important source of scientific information about environmental conditions and biodiversity within the Reserve’s borders. The environmental reports also describe critical knowledge gaps and pose useful scientific questions that could become the basis for graduate research projects.

We are conducting regular surveys of birds, mammals and wildflowers and will develop detailed species lists.

A weather station has been established on the land. Reserve staff members are purchasing sampling gear and equipment in order to monitor the pools - their fauna and flora - and other habitats. A number of maps are available as resources for those planning research projects.

Potential research questions that could be addressed by university students or faculty include:

  • What are the geological, hydrological or biological processes that create and maintain the pools?
  • What is the interplay between surface and groundwater contributions to vernal pools? 
  • Can a wireless sensor network be productively used to collect meteorological and hydrological data at a suite of vernal pools along an edaphic or topographical gradient? 
  • What are the characteristics of soils that underlie the pools and how variable are the soils among pools? 
  • How do climate, hydrology, soil conditions and other abiotic variables interact in controlling the species composition of pool plant communities over time?
  • How are pools affected by cattle grazing, hoof impressions and the deposition of feces?
  • Do cows play a role in the transfer of fairy shrimp eggs among pools?
  • What are the ecosystem requirements and population parameters needed to monitor the fairy shrimp, clam shrimp and tadpole shrimp?
  • What are the specific habitat requirements of vernal pool endemic plants, such as Hartweg’s Golden Sunburst, Hairy Orcutt Grass and other species?
  • What is the status of fish introduced into the reserve’s cattle stock ponds? 
  • What is the status of burrowing owl populations in the surrounding grasslands and what is the nature of their commensal relationship with California ground squirrels?
  • What it is the composition of the non-breeding and the breeding season avifauna?