Reflections on Dead Wood

Sometimes we refer to people as dead wood," those who are useless or who haven't had an original thought in years. But real dead wood is actually very useful to its ecosystem. The branches contain matter that is needed for the growth of living plants and animals. So when a dead branch decays and its matter breaks down to its basic components, then there are nutrients freed up for new living things to use. This special process of the breakdown of living material is what we call "decomposition".

People don't usually consider dead organisms a pretty sight. But I have organized some photos into a gallery of decomposition, which has its own beauty. It includes a baby peccary that I found freshly dead that looks as if it is just sleeping. I was a little sad because baby peccaries are cute and playful, and it makes me sad when one dies. I don't know why it died, since there was no sign of a predator attack, injury, illness, or malnutrition. Later in our stay on BCI we could not find any sign of the body at all, probably because it was dragged away by scavengers such as vultures and common opossums. Scavengers play an important role in removing meat from bones and leaving those bones to return calcium to the ecosystem. Rodents like agoutis need calcium for their teeth and so will gnaw on the bones. I have also included a photo of the jawbone of an opossum that shows the hard, sharp teeth that remain after so much of the other bony material has disappeared.

The rest of the photo gallery shows dead wood and leaves being decayed by fungi. I think the fungi are beautiful and the decaying leaves are like the most delicate lace. I especially like the huge mushroom (see the pencil on top for size comparison) on the leafcutter trash pile. That trash is full of nutrients from the leafcutters' gardens, and the mushroom made good use of the material. People often think of fungi as plants, but they are not very much like plants: they have no chlorophyll, cannot 'feed' themselves by photosynthesis, and usually make a living by breaking down dead organisms to obtain the nutrients within.

Try to imagine how the world would be if there were no decomposition. Dead plants and animals would still be with us. There would be mountains of dead trees and leaves and animals. All the dinosaurs that ever lived would be lying around. In fact, the dead organisms would contain matter that living things could no longer obtain. So, ecosystems would come to a stop, unable to get at the essential nutrients locked up inside dead organisms. The process of decomposition is an important part of the cycle of life. It is necessary for dead organisms to break down into matter that new organisms can use.

The "decomposers" are those organisms that break down dead organisms: fungi, bacteria, fly and beetle larvae, and others. Decomposers are assisted by scavengers, but the really difficult work is done by the decomposers!Fungi don't look as if they are busy at all, but they do bustle quite a lot to get things done. A rotting log may look very quiet, but inside there are myriads of organisms. Bacteria, insect larve, and the microscopic filaments of fungi spread throughout the wood of the log. The fungal filaments produce chemicals that start the process of disintegrating the wood. Eventually the filaments give rise to reproductive structures, mushrooms, which make spores. The spores float in the air and, if they land on another fallen log, produce more fungi.

I hope this gives you a new way to look at dead wood and the fungi who live within.