Watching Wood Rot

Let's give three cheers to all the creatures on this planet that like to consume dead things. If it weren't for these essential critters, we would soon be buried up to our necks in leaves, tree branches and trunks, and animal corpses.

Decomposition is a key process in recycling carbon, oxygen, and nutrients needed for life on this planet. It can also offer several great watchable wildlife opportunities. Roll over a rotting log and you will find whole communities of ants, sow bugs, termites, and earthworms slowly digesting the wood and cellulose.

Fall_stump.JPG (32090 bytes)One component of this community not readily apparent except when they fruit are fungi. These organisms conduct their work inside the wood. Mycellium grow and multiply slowly consuming the wood. They recycle the nutrients from the wood they digest. If you break apart a piece of rotting wood, you can sometimes see the mycelium as a stringy mesh throughout the wood. It is not until the fungi fruit into what we recognize as mushrooms, toadstools, etc., that we realize they are in the wood.

Other decay activities to witness are earthworms slurping leaves. During wet periods, earthworms will pull dead leaves underground to consume them. Looking closely, you can actually see leaves curl and disappear into the earthworm burrow. Listen and you may even be able to hear the slurping sound they make.

Ichneumon wasps will lay their eggs inside dead standing wood. If you are lucky enough to stumble upon this sight, you can watch as wasp after wasp uses its long ovipositor to drill into the wood. The wasp actually lay their eggs on larvae feeding on the wood. The young hatch, and the wasp larvae consume their nest.

Woodpeckers are also great in assisting the decay process. Evidence of woodpecker activity is often a sign a tree has been infected by bugs or disease. While watching woodpeckers chip away you can get a feel for the whole process of recycling that occurs.

Activities that you can try with your kids or parents are to keep a written or photographic journal of the decomposition process. Next time instead of watching grass grow, or paint dry, do something fun - watch wood rot.