Have you ever thought about what the woods would look like if all the leaves, branches, acorns, animal scat (poop), dead animals and insects continually piled up? It wouldn’t be a very pleasant place to visit, that’s for sure! We would be buried in “stuff.” But nature has its own way of dealing with stuff. Everything is recycled efficiently through two distinct methods: scavengers and decomposition.
Scavengers are animals that eat anything they can find, dead or alive. It’s much easier to eat something dead than catch a live meal. Opossums, raccoons, vultures, crows and foxes are a few of the mammals that eat carrion. Also, many insects, such as beetles and maggots, are happy to partake in the feast.
Maybe you haven’t thought about it before, but you very seldom find small dead animals and insects in the woods. No mice, birds, voles, dragonflies. Occasionally, you will see the remains of larger animals, such as deer, opossums and rabbits, because it takes longer for their remains to be recycled.
Before wildlife rehabilitators release an opossum into the wild, they have to test it to ensure that it will be able to live in the wild successfully. One of the tests is giving it a dead animal and seeing if it will eat the carcass. If it does, the rehabilitated opossum is ready to be released. We all should be more grateful than we are that opossums inhabit our neighborhoods!
The process of breaking down organic material into simpler substances is called decomposition. We think of decomposition as a cleaner process and associate it more with plant matter (as well as scat) than we do with dead animals. Decomposing animals cause a much stronger emotional reaction when encountered.
Amazingly, recent research, particularly in old-growth forests, has shown that decomposing trees on the forest floor actually contain more living matter than live standing trees. This is true because of all the different organisms busily at work, turning the organic matter into fuel, energy and, eventually, soil to support new plant life. A dead tree is full of ants, worms, beetles, mites, grubs, fungi and bacteria, all breaking down the wood to get the nutrients that are locked up in it.
If you have a log pile at home, leave it for a few years and watch it decay. As it slowly decomposes, it becomes a very interesting pile. The longer it decays, the more birds love digging around in it, looking for worms, beetles, grubs and ants. They kick around the smaller pieces of wood, which hastens the decomposition process. If you understand how intertwined all parts of the natural world are and the different steps/links in the food chain, you can watch nature at work without getting quite as upset.
One of my favorite food-chain memories is from a Wild Wednesday program at Sweetwater Creek State Park. It was the end of summer, and the yellow jackets were out and about. Yellow jackets are omnivores, meaning they will eat anything, including the remains of a crushed caterpillar or other insect. One year, we killed a caterpillar on a Wild Wednesday walk, and watching it being eaten by yellow jackets fascinated the children who had come along. Of course, we had to take some precautions to keep the young naturalists from becoming yellow jacket victims.
It’s so much easier to appreciate the beautiful flowers and trees, the gurgling streams and singing birds than the slow and quiet decomposers. However, I think we might need to revise our opinion about what is good and wonderful in nature. Even though it’s difficult, we have to admit we owe a debt of gratitude to opossums, raccoons, yellow jackets, fungi and bacteria!
The Master Gardener Volunteers of Cobb County supports the University of Georgia Cooperative Extension Service and strives to improve the quality of life in our community by delivering research-based horticultural information, educational programs and projects.
– Master Gardener Volunteers of Cobb County is a part of the University of Georgia Extension.