Species Spotlight: Fingernail Clam

by Emma Kull, MNA Communications Intern

Vernal pools are home to several hundreds of different species, including some fan favorites like the spotted salamander and the wood frog. Not all of these pool dwelling creatures are quite as well known–or as easy to identify–as the amphibian ones. One in particular, known as the fingernail clam, is so small that it is easy to miss at first glance. However, if you look a little closer at the pool floor, you’ll find thousands of them!

Photo by Leo Kenney

The fingernail clam is a lesser known, yet tremendously fascinating, inhabitant of the vernal pool wetland. There are many different species of fingernail clams, but the differences are so minute that it takes a serious clam expert to tell them apart. They are aptly named for their similarity in size to a pinky fingernail, with the largest of the species measuring at no more than a half an inch. Fingernail clams are bivalves, meaning their body is protected by two shells hinged together. They thrive in vernal pools, which can have calcium rich bedrock that provides optimal conditions for building strong shells. They have one foot which they use to navigate their surroundings as they feed on the pool’s algae and debris. 

Interestingly enough, fingernail clams can also utilize their singular but mighty foot to survive the vernal pool’s dry season by burrowing up to 8 inches into the moist soil. Other times, these clams will avoid the drying all together by hitching a ride on the toes of a salamander who carries the clam to safety by traveling to a new pool. Some fingernail clams might even clamp down on the feathers of a nearby bird, another suitable shuttle to a different pool. 

Fingernail clams only live for about one to two years, during which they reproduce several times. The self-fertilizing clams store their eggs in a specialized compartment in their gills until each tiny offspring is fully formed and released. The fingernail clam offspring are so large–up to one-third of the adult clam size–that there is simply not enough room for all of them. This leads to a competition for nutrients that is generally won by the older and larger young clams. The winners complete their development and are released into the world to begin their own delightful journey as a fingernail clam.

Interacting Safely with Michigan Wildlife

by Jayli Husband, MNA Communications Intern

Michigan is filled with many interesting landscapes such as lakes, forests, marshes, prairies, as well as a popular destination for sand dunes and beaches. With this diversity of natural areas to explore, there are many different species that can be spotted throughout Michigan. With spring in full bloom throughout the state, it is important to be conscious of the native wildlife that may soon be emerging within our forests and neighborhoods and how to properly interact with them. Each spring, there are a number of wildlife encounters throughout Michigan that should be taken with caution.

As temperatures rise, reptiles such as snakes will become more prevalent because they hibernate during the cooler months. After a snake has been clearly seen, it is important to keep a safe distance so that the snake does not feel threatened, this way, they will not react. Snakes will most often avoid humans, in fact, 17 of 18 Michigan snake species are harmless to people. However, if you happen to encounter the Eastern massasauga rattlesnake (Michigan’s only venomous snake), it is best to back away, and if it is staying in a community setting such as a park or backyard have it removed by a professional.

Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnake photo by Zach Pacana.

Unfortunately, the Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnake is now a threatened species because of the loss of habitat, thus, it is important to report any sightings to help conservation and DNR tracking efforts in Michigan. Snakes are very important in their ecosystem; they maintain balance in by eating pests such as mice and rats, and are also important prey for hawks, and other larger carnivores.

In addition to reptiles and amphibians popping back up, coyotes are also a common sight in the spring throughout Michigan. Coyotes can be spotted throughout the year, but it is important to know how to handle monitoring them due to increased activity during mating season. Like many animals, coyotes tend to avoid humans, but it is important to keep watch on small pets and make sure that they are supervised when outdoors if a coyote is spotted nearby. Additionally, coyotes have a great sense of smell, so it is helpful to keep food or smelly garbage contained when it is placed outdoors. To prevent a coyote from moving closer, they can often be deterred by scaring them through loud noises and aggressive hand waving. Coyotes are important for ecosystems as well because they are a keystone species. As a keystone species, coyotes help control the populations of prey species such as rabbits, rodents, deer, snakes, and many more animals which regulates the ecosystem.

Similarly, if a black bear is nearby, it is best to move and give the bear space or scare it off by making loud noises and looking as big as possible. Additionally, according to the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (MIDNR), people should follow the S.M.A.R.T. guidelines with black bears:

  • Stand your ground
  • Make loud noises
    • Always provide a clear escape route for the bear
    • Rarely do bears attack, but fight back if they do
    • Treat bears with respect and observe from a distance.
A black bear with several cubs. Photo by Thomas Wiensch

Black bears are the only bear species that reside in Michigan and only roam in hardwood and conifer forests. Overall, they tend to avoid humans like most animals, but it is best to take caution. Like snakes, bears also appear in the warmer months due to hibernation during cooler months. Bears also play an important role in the environment; like coyotes, bears help maintain the population of their prey including deer, elk, insects, and plants. Uniquely, because bears eat lots of berries, their scat turns into the perfect fertilizer for plants and bushes!

Any direct encounter with these animals are pretty rare. Keep in mind that biting insects such as ticks and mosquitoes pose a more serious threat when out and about this summer. Take common sense precautions with long pants, long sleeves, and repellant while enjoying any lucky wildlife sightings.

It is so important to maintain healthy relationships our wildlife because each animal helps maintain balance in the ecosystem. You can report wildlife sightings to the MIDNR using the Eyes in the Field website, where you can select a category and report your observation. And you can help protect natural areas for all of Michigan’s many species by supporting the Michigan Nature Association.

Nurturing a Symbiotic Relationship with Michigan Nature

by Dan Burton, MNA Sanctuary Steward

March signals the end of another winter, woody invasive shrubs removal season. It is not exactly a season noted on the calendar or managed by regulators, but is well known to many volunteer stewards. For me the season begins when the trees have lost most of their leaves in late fall and ends as sap begins to swell overwintered buds in early spring. As I recently toured a prairie fen I steward noting this season’s piles of cut invasive shrubs and open canopy, I was excited for the restoration work completed. I was also saddened to see another season go, even though I knew it meant spring was around the corner.

Before restoration work. Photo by Dan Burton.

There is something about this restoration work that I find very rewarding. It is tough physical work in cold winter conditions, but I am still drawn (if not addicted) to it. Part of the draw is working outside immersed in the natural elements that awaken dormant senses not unlike the hours I spend hiking and canoeing. Part of it is the physical tasks that drain my ageing body’s meager energy reserves taking with it pent-up anxiety from everyday life and yet somehow leaving me recharged. Part of it is the positive feeling of helping out an underdog prairie fen as it fights off a formidable foe in invasive shrubs. The prairie fen has historically had the help of fire in this battle, but that friendly partner has been mostly absent these days and sorely missed by many of the prairie fen’s native flora and fauna that benefit from the open canopy created.

Another part is the human elements I find outdoors even when working solo. I usually get to work with some dedicated like minded volunteers and enjoy the camaraderie, but COVID restrictions made this a solo season. As this season came to an end and I looked around the prairie fen I had worked so hard to help in its struggle against invasive intruders, I found myself alone and thinking about my stepdad and his brother who introduced me to the outdoors as a kid. They are both gone now and in some way, I think I was hoping they would be proud of the restoration work, its benefit to wildlife, and how they played a role in it by introducing me to the outdoors so many years ago.

After restoration work. Photo by Dan Burton.

As I rested on a weathered downed tree tossing back trail mix, faded fond memories of early morning fishing and hunting trips with the two of them drifted in lifting my spirits. They would be proud of the restoration work, but being old school they likely would have questioned my sanity. It does seem crazy to think of the hours, effort and resources I put into volunteer stewardship, yet I benefit as much as the prairie fen and its fantastic native flora and fauna. I guess you could simply say I am in a symbiotic relationship with a pretty prairie fen and thankful for its many mutual benefits.


Learn more about how you can become a Sanctuary Steward with MNA and start nurturing your symbiotic relationship today at michigannature.org.

Species Spotlight: Fairy Shrimp

by Emma Kull, MNA Communications Intern

A vernal pool fills with water around the springtime, bringing new life. Here, a small crustacean hatches; a lesser known relative of the lobster.

This crustacean’s common name, fairy shrimp, is the perfect nod to its graceful demeanor in the water and its small, delicate body. These aquatic dancers glide through the water on their backs by slowly rippling their eleven pairs of legs to create propulsion. They vary in size but are typically around three quarters of an inch long.

Fairy shrimp photo courtesy Michigan Natural Features Inventory.

The fairy shrimp would not be able to survive without the protective habitat created by the emergence of vernal pools each year. Though the ephemeral nature of vernal pools makes them a safe place for fairy shrimp to live without fish predators, surviving in such impermanent conditions is no small task. Fortunately, fairy shrimp are well adapted to do just that.

Once their eggs hatch, fairy shrimp have relatively short life cycles, only about a few weeks, allowing them to age and usually reproduce within the short window provided by the pool. In the case that the vernal pool dries up too quickly for the fairy shrimp to reproduce, these clever crustaceans have a backup strategy. Each spring, only a segment of the fairy shrimp eggs that had been laid the previous year will hatch, leaving the rest to remain dormant for potentially several years. That means that the fairy shrimp population can continue to survive, even if the pool doesn’t fill with water one year.

The presence of fairy shrimp is a sign of a healthy ecosystem, as it is considered an indicator species to confirm the presence of a vernal pool; and is exciting to behold if you are lucky enough to witness it.

Spotted salamanders are another species that use vernal pools. Photo courtesy Michigan Natural Features Inventory.

As a lead partner of the Michigan Vernal Pools Partnership, the Michigan Nature Association is committed to protecting vernal pools for all of the species that use them at a number of our more than 180 Nature Sanctuaries throughout Michigan.