Mapping vernal pool wetlands on the Cumberland Plateau

An extensive, yet poorly understood, system of ephemeral pond wetlands exists on the surface of the Cumberland Plateau. These ponds support diverse plant and animal communities, and are critical for pond-breeding amphibians. Anthropogenic modifications and fragmentation of the terrestrial habitat around the wetlands and alterations to the wetlands themselves reduce biodiversity and connectivity between ponds. In 2005, the extent of the system, the number of ponds in existence, and the conditions of the ponds were unknown. In 2005, faculty and students at the Landscape Analysis Lab and in the Biology Department began a multi-scale study of the ecology of the ephemeral ponds on the Cumberland Plateau.

In 2004, Brett Scheffers, Bert Harris '06, and Dr. David Haskell studied the diversity of the avian community that makes use of the ephemeral ponds. Their research showed that the avian community around the ponds had significantly higher abundance, richness, and species diversity than at control sites located within the native hardwood forest of the Cumberland Plateau surface. In 2006,they presented their research at the Annual Meeting of the American Ornithological Society in Quebec.

The second phase of research focused on mapping the extent and distribution of these ponds across a six county region on the Cumberland Plateau in southern Tennessee. Brett Scheffers '05 developed a geospatial dataset in which the locations of approximately 560 ephemeral wetlands in the 600,000-acre study region were identified. Using geospatial mapping technology, ponds were identified on high resolution USGS National Aerial Photography Program (NAPP) imagery captured in 1997. This method proved to be extremely accurate (Ponds were located at 93% of sites identified) and indicated that the frequency of ponds on the Plateau was much great than originally anticipated, suggesting that these ponds may play a much larger role on the landscape than previously understood.

Conservation of the ecological function of the ephemeral pond system is dependent on the simultaneous conservation of the upland terrestrial habitat that surrounds the ponds and connects them ecologically. Conservation in a primarily privately-owned landscape may be particularly challenging. Only 3% (17 of 564) ephemeral ponds are located on land owned by the state or by local government. Between 1981 and 2003, 29% (166/564) of natural ponds experienced loss of native hardwood forest within the core terrestrial habitat zone surrounding the ponds. In 1981, 272 natural ephemeral ponds (48%) had complete native forest cover within the core terrestrial habitat zone. This number decreased to 178 during the next 22 years.


Peer-reviewed articles

Scheffers, Brett R., Nicholas Hollingshead, and Jonathan P. Evans. (in review). "Core terrestrial habitat loss around ephemeral ponds of the Cumbernald Plateau, Tennessee."
Scheffers, Brett R., J. Berton C. Harris, and David G. Haskell. 2006. "Avifauna associated with ephemeral ponds on the Cumberland Plateau, Tennessee." Journal of Field Ornithology, 77(2):178-183.

Scheffers, Brett. 2005. "The location and fate of ephemeral ponds on the Cumberland Plateau, Tennessee." Department of Biology, University of the South.

Scheffers, Brett R., J. Bert, C. Harris, David G. Haskell, Christopher J. Butler, and Jonathan P. Evans. "A study of the location and fate of ephemeral ponds on the Cumberland Plateau and an assesment of their importance for birds." Society of Wetland Scientists Conference, 2005. Charleston, South Carolina. Winner of Best Oral Presentation award.
Scheffers, Brett R., J. Bert C. Harris, and David G. Haskell. 2004. "Do ephemeral ponds provide habitat for birds?" Tennessee Ornithological Society, 2004 Fall Symposium, Cookeville, Tennessee.
Scheffers, Brett R., 2005. "A study of the location and fate of ephemeral ponds on the Cumberland Plateau." Scientific Sewanee, April 2005.
Chang, Malia, Katherine Colbath, Jean Faulkner, and Pam Melera. "A comparison of spotted salamander egg clusters in ephemeral and permanent bodies of water." Scientific Sewanee, April 2003.
Media coverage

Juliet Eilperin. "Conservation's company plan -- firms are asked to examine paper use in effort to save forest." Washington Post. October 24, 2004.