Wood EarRecently, while the forest was quiet and no kids were stomping along the trails, Patti and I took a long hike down into the preserve. We hiked back towards Beaver Falls and then up through the prairie. Along the way we searched for mushrooms, butterflies, and any other interesting sights. As we were hiking we noticed a lot of fallen trees. We have lost several large trees and parts of trees near the buildings due to weak roots and branches, insect activity and high winds. We expected to see many trees down but what we were most interested in was what was living on and around the fallen behemoths. The fungus families were going nuts last week after all the rainy, humid weather.

We saw chantrelles, corals, bolettes, russulas, elephant ears and so many more species. Mushrooms are really awesome to study and try to understand. They are neither plants nor animals and have really cool reproductive strategies. You can come out and learn more during our Foraging for Fungi program on October 1st. As neat at fungi is, I want to focus on the death they are built on.

It is always sad to lose a tree, but when a tree dies it becomes host to hundreds of other organisms. Standing dead wood will host nesting animals such as woodpeckers, owls and snakes. Tons of insects take up residence and break down the wood as well as become food for other animals. And the fungi take advantage of the lack of defense and they send mycelium into the roots, and trunk of the trees to start the process of decomposition. Eventually that standing dead tree will fall over and become a log on the ground and continue to host creatures and decompose until there is nothing left. Under a fallen logs you are likely to see pillbugs, worms, millipedes, centipedes, snakes, ants, termites, spiders, lizards, and bess beetles (just to name a few). There is a whole ecosystem underneath that log.

Imagine a world devoid of these decomposers. And just for the fun of it let’s include the icky ones too, flies and vultures! If there were no decomposers, there would be trash and dead things everywhere. Animals hit along the road would stay there, trees would die and stay whole, leaves would pile up and up, and nothing would be recycled back into nutrients for new plants. I can’t imagine living somewhere like that, can you?

So next time you walk by a log, turn it over and explore the creatures underneath. Next time you drive by some road kill,  thank the flies that will get that job done, and next time you see a Turkey vulture flying above your head, wish it happy hunting. Without these creatures doing what they do best we would be living in a very smelly, messy world.

-Ramona Puskar, education assistant