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Ryan O'Connor
Natural Heritage Inventory Ecologist

Ephemeral Pond

State Rank: SU     Global Rank: GNRQ   what are these ranks?


Detailed Community Description from Ecological Landscapes of Wisconsin

General natural community overview

Counties shaded blue have documented occurrences for Ephemeral Pond in the Wisconsin Natural Heritage Inventory database.

Ephemeral ponds are depressions with impeded drainage, usually in forest landscapes, that hold water for a period of time following snowmelt and spring rains but typically dry out by mid-summer. Common wetland plants found in this community include yellow water crowfoot (Ranunculus flabellaris), mermaid weed (Proserpinaca palustris), Canada bluejoint grass (Calamagrostis canadensis), floating manna grass (Glyceria septentrionalis), spotted cowbane (Cicuta maculata), smartweeds (Polygonum spp.), orange jewelweed (Impatiens capensis), and sedges. They flourish with productivity during their brief existence and provide critical breeding habitat for some invertebrates, as well as many amphibians such as wood frogs and several salamander species. They also provide feeding, resting, and breeding habitat for songbirds and a source of food for many mammals. Ephemeral ponds contribute in many ways to the biodiversity of a woodlot, forest stand, and the larger landscape. There have been many definitions and synonyms for the term ephemeral pond (e.g., vernal pool), however, they all broadly fit into a community context by the following attributes: their placement in woodlands, lack of connection to a permanent waterbody, small size, hydrology, length of time they hold water, and the lack of fish that would otherwise prey on invertebrates, amphibian egg masses, and tadpoles.

Trees adjacent to ephemeral ponds provide a variety of benefits such as maintaining cool water temperatures, preventing premature drying, and contributing to the food web. The annual input of leaves from these trees help provide a detritus-based food source for a variety of invertebrates.

Defining Characteristics and Similar Communities

Ephemeral ponds are defined as small fishless pools in forested landscapes that lack a connection to a permanent waterbody and usually dry out by mid-late summer. When dry, they may resemble small sedge meadows or marshes, or merely a damp, leafy depression in a hardwood forest. Ephemeral ponds may also contain trees such as black ash in their basins and may occasionally grade into hardwood swamps. While hardwood swamps sometimes have similar features (shallow pools that dry by late summer), ephemeral ponds are distinguished by their small size (usually one acre or less, rarely greater than two acres) and isolation from other wetlands and waterbodies. Ephemeral ponds may occur as a component of Great Lakes ridge and swale community complexes. They also share some characteristics with interdunal wetlands (such as being fishless amphibian breeding areas) but are found in forested habitats rather than depressions within sand dunes.

Rare animals

Species of Greatest Conservation Need

Wisconsin Wildlife Action Plan graphic

The following Species of Greatest Conservation Need are listed according to their level of association with the Ephemeral Pond natural community type, based on the findings in Wisconsin's 2015 Wildlife Action Plan.

Scores: 3 = high association, 2 = moderate association, and 1 = low association. See the key to association scores for complete definitions.

Four-toed SalamanderHemidactylium scutatum3
Pickerel FrogLithobates palustris3
Mink FrogLithobates septentrionalis2
Blanchard's Cricket FrogAcris blanchardi1

A Water Scavenger BeetleAgabetes acuductus3
A Predaceous Diving BeetleLaccornis deltoides2
A Predaceous Diving BeetleCopelatus chevrolati2
A Predaceous Diving BeetleIlybius opacus2
A Predaceous Diving BeetleHygrotus compar2
A Water Scavenger BeetleHelophorus latipenis2

Black-crowned Night-HeronNycticorax nycticorax3
Red-shouldered HawkButeo lineatus3
Yellow-crowned Night-HeronNyctanassa violacea3
Rusty BlackbirdEuphagus carolinus2
American BitternBotaurus lentiginosus1
American WoodcockScolopax minor1
Black-necked StiltHimantopus mexicanus1

Dragonflies and damselfliesScore
Swamp DarnerEpiaeschna heros3

Grasshoppers and alliesScore
Spotted-winged GrasshopperOrphulella pelidna2
Bog ConeheadNeoconocephalus lyristes1

Little Brown BatMyotis lucifugus3
Northern Long-eared BatMyotis septentrionalis3
Silver-haired BatLasionycteris noctivagans3
Big Brown BatEptesicus fuscus2
Eastern PipistrellePerimyotis subflavus2
Woodland Jumping MouseNapaeozapus insignis2

Blanding's TurtleEmydoidea blandingii3
Eastern MassasaugaSistrurus catenatus3
Wood TurtleGlyptemys insculpta2
Eastern RibbonsnakeThamnophis sauritus1
Plains GartersnakeThamnophis radix1

Please see Section 2. Approach and Methods of the Wildlife Action Plan to learn how this information was developed.

Rare plants

The Natural Heritage Inventory has developed scores indicating the degree to which each of Wisconsin's rare plant species is associated with a particular natural community or ecological landscape. This information is similar to that found in the Wildlife Action Plan for animals. As this is a work in progress, we welcome your suggestions and feedback.

Scores: 3 = "significantly associated," 2 = "moderately associated," and 1 = "minimally associated."
Scientific Name Common Name Score
Carex crus-corvi Ravenfoot Sedge 2
Carex formosa Handsome Sedge 2
Carex lupuliformis False Hop Sedge 3
Carex sychnocephala Many-headed Sedge 2
Nyssa sylvatica Black Tupelo 2


The following Ecological Landscapes have the best opportunities to manage for Ephemeral Pond, based on the Ecological Landscapes of Wisconsin Handbook.

Map of the Ecological Landscapes of Wisconsin.

Major (3 on map)
A major opportunity for sustaining the natural community in the Ecological Landscape exists, either because many significant occurrences of the natural community have been recorded in the landscape or major restoration activities are likely to be successful maintaining the community's composition, structure, and ecological function over a longer period of time.

Important (2 on map)
Although the natural community does not occur extensively or commonly in the Ecological Landscape, one to several occurrences do occur and are important in sustaining the community in the state. In some cases, important opportunities may exist because the natural community may be restricted to just one or a few Ecological Landscapes within the state and there may be a lack of opportunities elsewhere.

Present (1 on map)
The natural community occurs in the Ecological Landscape, but better management opportunities appear to exist in other parts of the state.


Wisconsin Wildlife Action Plan graphic

What are conservation actions?

Conservation actions respond to issues or threats, which adversely affect species of greatest conservation need (SGCN) or their habitats. Besides actions such as restoring wetlands or planting resilient tree species in northern communities, research, surveys and monitoring are also among conservation actions described in the WWAP because lack of information can threaten our ability to successfully preserve and care for natural resources.

Threats/issues and conservations actions for natural communities


The following are additional considerations for Ephemeral Pond in Ecological Landscapes with opportunities for protection, restoration, and/or management. For more information, see the Wildlife Action Plan.

Central Lake Michigan Coastal

Loss of forest cover, forest fragmentation, and widespread development have altered this community.

Forest Transition

Loss of forest cover, forest fragmentation, and development have altered this community. Because of the fine textured soils present in some parts of this Ecological Landscape, there may be locally important opportunities to manage for and protect this habitat.

North Central Forest

Ephemeral ponds are found within the northern dry, northern dry-mesic, and northern mesic community types and are most abundant in the latter type. Flambeau River State Forest (Sawyer, Rusk and Price Counties), Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forests and many county forests contain ephemeral ponds within a forest matrix. Ephemeral ponds are often found in relation to other water features on the landscape, such as the Wisconsin, Flambeau, Chippewa, Bad, and White Rivers. Invasive plants are becoming a threat especially where motorized recreation occurs within this community. If detected early, small isolated patches of invasive plants may successfully be controlled. Forest management provides an opportunity to identify these isolated communities and protect them prior to timber sale establishment.

Northern Highland

Ephemeral ponds are found within a heterogeneous forest matrix of northern dry, northern dry-mesic and northern mesic community types, and are usually associated with other wetland features, i.e., corridors connecting to ponds.

Northern Lake Michigan Coastal

The loss of forest cover, forest fragmentation, and development have altered this community and diminished management opportunities.

Southeast Glacial Plains

Loss of forest cover, forest fragmentation, development, conversion to stormwater and landscape ponds, and silting in from sediment-laden runoff have altered this community and greatly reduced opportunities for management. The Northern Unit of the Kettle Moraine State Forest contains some good examples of this type. There is a need for better inventory and mapping of remaining ephemeral pond occurrences in this landscape.

Southern Lake Michigan Coastal

Loss of forest cover, forest fragmentation, conversion to stormwater and landscape ponds, silting in from sediment-laden runoff, and widespread, intensive development have altered this community. Management opportunities are limited to a few remnant, isolated forest patches. There are some opportunities to incorporate ephemeral ponds into forest restoration efforts due to the widespread presence of loamy and clayey soils with a propensity for seasonal ponding.

Western Coulee and Ridges

Ephemeral ponds are common in the Helena Marsh and Goodwiler-Kendal Slough (Iowa County), and the Mazomanie Bottoms (Dane County) on terraces bordering the Wisconsin River and other aquatic features. Additional inventory for this type is badly needed in this Ecological Landscape.


Ephemeral Pond Photos

Ephemeral Pond Photo

Ephemeral pond within a Northern Mesic Forest, Flambeau River State Forest, Price County.

Photo by Drew Feldkirchner.

Ephemeral Pond Photo

Ephemeral pond within a Northern Mesic Forest, Flambeau River State Forest, Price County.

Photo by Drew Feldkirchner.

Ephemeral Pond Photo

Photo by Christina Isenring.

Ephemeral Pond Photo

Ephemeral pond in spring in a mesic northern forest in Vilas County.

Photo by Ryan O'Connor.

Ephemeral Pond Photo

Ephemeral pond filled with spring rain and snowmelt in northern mesic forest.

Photo by Ryan O'Connor.

Ephemeral Pond Photo

Ephemeral pond with sedges within a mesic forest.

Photo by Ryan O'Connor.

Ephemeral Pond Photo

Ephemeral ponds provide important breeding habitat for many species of frogs and salamanders.

Photo by Ryan O'Connor.

Note: photos are provided to illustrate various examples of natural community types. A single photograph cannot represent the range of variability inherent in a given community type. Some of these photos explicitly illustrate unusual and distinctive community variants. The community photo galleries are a work in progress that we will expand and improve in the future.

Last revised: Thursday, October 08, 2020