Decomposers: The clean-up crew of the forest
Ryan Summerlin July 2, 2012
Have you recently been out on a hike in Summit County? Did you have the feeling that you were being watched? Believe it or not, you were surrounded by the FBI. Not the Federal Bureau of Investigation, but a plethora of decomposers and scavengers. FBI: Fungi, Bacteria and Invertebrates. Decomposers and scavengers play an integral part of the life cycle in the Montane Forest Life Zone. This coniferous-filled zone is located in the elevations of approximately 8,000 to 10,000 feet.
You may notice a “crime scene” when you come upon a fallen tree, a dead animal, or even animal scat. But have no fear – the FBI is hard at work. Fungi, bacteria and invertebrates begin the process of decomposing the once-living soon after they land upon the forest floor. Fungi and bacteria are the major decomposers of organic matter, such as dead vegetation. In the scientific world, the term “organic” refers to anything that has molecules composed of hydrogen and carbon atoms. By decomposing organic matter, fungi and bacteria produce important elements such as nitrogen, a crucial ingredient in new plant growth. Fungi and bacteria also use the organic matter to reproduce. After fungi and bacteria die, they are also decomposed. Those unique decomposers are called saprobes or saprotrophs.
Where, you may ask, do the invertebrates, or animals without backbones, come into play? Invertebrates find rotting vegetation, such as logs, a great habitat. It is a useful place for insects to lay their eggs, and then the larvae feast on the nutrient-rich fungi and bacteria. They speed up the decomposition process and add to the nutrients being released. Invertebrates also join in with fungi and bacteria, as well as some wildlife scavengers, such as ravens and coyotes, to break down animal carcasses.
The forest life cycle is a delicately balanced process. Animals rely on plants, or animals that eat plants, for their food source. Plants depend on nutrients within the soil for their growth. Decomposition breaks down the organic material to be used as a direct food source or breaks them down further until they become part of the nutrient-rich soil.
Imagine what would happen to the ecosystem if the FBI no longer performed their duties. Dead matter and waste would pile up on the forest floor and serve no purpose in the life cycle. The energy flow would cease to move on and would have to be stored in the pile that would keep accumulating. Without the energy becoming available for the other living species, more would begin dying, and life would change as we know it.
Be thankful for the FBI. The fungi, bacteria and invertebrates may be serving their own purpose, but they lend themselves to a much greater good. So the next time you are on a hike, be on the lookout for any crime scenes. Take the time to examine that fallen tree, the layer of pine needles, or even scat that is not so fresh. Become a person who appreciates the FBI for their part in keeping the forest life cycle ongoing and healthy. They may be small, but they are mighty.
Kim Egbert is the co-science director of Keystone Science School Camp Programs. For more information about Keystone Science School, call (970) 468-2098 or visit www.keystonescienceschool.org.