Have you ever been out in the woods, seen a decomposing log on the ground, and flipped it over to see what’s hiding underneath? Were you surprised at what you found? Grubs and worms and snails–and all the other squishy bugs and animals that help the forest floor do its thing.
Join us on Zoom for a virtual field trip to explore the forest floor this Friday, November 13, 2020. Or read on for ideas for exploring the forest floor yourself!
Attend the virtual field trip, Friday, November 13, 2020. Turn over leaves and logs with us!
Read about the levels of decomposition. We’re calling in the FBI (fungus, bacteria and invertebrates).
Go on a forest floor scavenger hunt. We have some suggestions for what you can look for down on the ground.
Attend the Virtual Field Trip
Friday, October 23, 10:30am
Every Friday from 10:30 to 11:00am, we hold a Zoom call live from the woods. This week, our naturalists will turn over logs and dig under leaves. Let’s see what we can find when we get down low on the ground!
You’ll receive the link for the Zoom call in your email. The same link works each Friday.
~~We’ll post the recording of the field trip here the following Monday~~
Layers of the forest
As most of you know, forests are very complex ecosystems. They have many layers , all working together to keep things healthy and stable. The forest floor is one of the most important, and probably the most overlooked, of these layers.
The forest floor is the link between the above-ground plants and animals, and the underground soil and nutrients that help the forest grow. When you look at it above ground, it mostly looks like clutter–leaves, logs, bark, branches–and not much life. But if you take a closer look, you’ll notice that this layer has an entire mini ecosystem of its own!
Invertebrates, fungi, algae, bacteria: these small organisms work together to decompose (break down) that layer of clutter and turn it into a beautiful, nutritious soil. Let’s learn more about what these organisms are.
Levels of Decomposition
Decomposition is essential to all life! It is the process of taking something that was once alive (like dead trees and animals) and turning it into fuel for future life.
Invertebrates are the first level of decomposition in the ecosystem of the forest floor. Invertebrates are insects and other small critters without backbones. These insects and their allies feast on the litter on the ground. For example:
- Ants break down leaves and other plant parts for food. Ants dig tunnels, which helps bring oxygen into the soil. This makes room for other plants to grow. Ants also eat other, more destructive insects like termites or aphids. Termites and aphids can kill living plants before it is their time.
- Snails and slugs eat a variety of plants and fungi. When they digest the plants and poop them out, they return nutrients from the plant to the soil, so other plants can use it.
- Worms eat the freshly decomposed soil made by other invertebrates. They filter it through their bodies to make their own special fertilizer. However, some earthworms are invasive, or from other parts of the world. They can decompose the litter on the forest floor too quickly!
Mushrooms and other fungi are the next level of decomposition. In some places, algae is more common.
Most mushrooms are much bigger than the toadstool you see. That little aboveground mushroom is just a small growth on its large web of its underground, cobweb-like “roots.” These underground webs and strands are called mycelium.
A fungus’ mycelium can grow for miles. The mycelium will eat everything they can get into! Instead of digesting food inside of them, like we do in our bellies, they disintegrate the food all around them, then absorb it. Some of that disintegrated matter is left in the soil for other organisms. The process can even clean pollution out of the soil!
Some kinds of mycelium and trees help each other out. The strands of mycelium grow around the roots of trees, and help the trees get water and food. The tree gives the mycorrhizae a home where it can to grow and reproduce. This is called a mutualist relationship, which is a kind of symbiosis.
Can you think of other things in a forest that have this type of relationship?
The final level of decomposition goes to bacteria and other microscopic organisms. Bacteria are single-celled organisms (teeny tiny pieces of life). These bacteria feed on dead plants, animals, and even fungi.
Bacteria are super important to the cycling of nutrients in soil called carbon, nitrogen, and phosphorus. Carbon, nitrogen, and phosphorus are kind of like plant vitamins. Plants need them to live. So it is very important that they get returned from dead plants to living plants!
Your turn: How to explore the forest floor
You might want: a magnifying glass and a small plastic container to hold specimens
Now that you know the layers of decomposition within a forest floor, go outside and try to find some invertebrates, fungus or bacteria!
Start by flipping over rocks or logs.
- What do you see?
- Can you see any of the bugs (invertebrates) that help with the first layer of decomposition?
- Can you find a silky substance that looks kind of like an underground spiderweb? (This is the mycelium).
- What do you think these do, and how do you think they work together?
- For more ideas about what to look for, try the scavenger hunt below.
Look under logs and leaf litter for these signs of decomposition:
- Worm trails
- Roly-poly (potato bug)
- Slug trails or slime
- Mycelium (mushroom “roots”), usually a silky substance found in the log itself. It might look like cobwebs or long skinny strands.
When you look for these things, try to use all your senses! What do they look, smell, sound, or feel like? Remember not to eat anything though, unless you have a trusted adult, or really want to eat a worm.
Remember to put everything back where you found it after checking things out! This includes rolling logs back where you found them, and returning the leaves. While it may not seem like it, the forest floor is one of the most important and delicate aspects of the forest ecosystem. Remember, leave no trace!
Take pictures or make some art based on what you find, and share in the comments below!