How are nutrients recycled in nature? What plants, animals, and organisms help with this process? Where can we observe this in our own yards and neighborhoods?
Last summer, a huge, old tree fell in the woods at Gilsland Farm. No one was quite sure what caused it to happen right then, during a camp day when some campers were off-site on a field trip and others were over in the Peony Garden. CRASH! The sound it made was loud and surprising! Thankfully, this tree landed beside one of our trails (but safely to the side) so it was in a great spot to investigate after the fall.
Even though this great tree’s life had ended, it was really just the beginning of an important process in the forest: decomposition. That tree, now laying on its side in the soil, will eventually become the soil itself! The nutrients that it held will be available for future growing plants to use, continuing the recycling of life.
What Is a Decomposer?
A decomposer is an organism that breaks down dead plant, animal, and waste material. These are often found in or near the soil or substrate of a habitat, as rotting plant matter (leaf litter) is actually one of their foods! As decomposers consume these nutrients, they help produce more soil. Some are also food for larger creatures, fueling the entire food web. Depending on the type of decomposer, this process may be slow or slightly faster, but it will take a long time for that whole, large tree to break down.
Who Are the Decomposers?
- Bacteria (very small organisms)
- Fungi (mushrooms, mold, lichen)
- Insects and other arthropods (ants, beetles, millipedes, etc.)
- Scavengers (animals that eat carrion or rotting meat)
This Nature Moment focuses on the role fungi play in decomposition…it can be easy to forget them when there are salamanders, millipedes, or worms to look for, but they are a very important part of this process!
Decomposer Scavenger Hunt: How Many Can You Find?
Go out looking for these anywhere plants and/or soil can be found – you may be surprised at how many decomposers are in our backyards or local parks! An outdoor space that has fallen logs or downed trees may offer a chance to look even closer…try gently rolling these logs with the help of a grown-up from your household to see what’s happening on the other side. Remember to be very gentle with any wildlife you spot and always remember to roll the log back after you’re done!
After observing, simply leave your finds where they are or snap a quick picture!
|â—¯ A fallen tree||â—¯ Decomposing leaves|
|â—¯ Bark peeling off of a log||â—¯ An earthworm|
|â—¯ Evidence of insects living in wood (holes, tunnels)||â—¯ Lichen on a tree|
|â—¯ Rotting wood that looks shredded or wet||â—¯ An ant|
|â—¯ A beetle||â—¯ New plants growing from an old log or stump|
|â—¯ Mushrooms or other fungi||â—¯ Dark, rich soil|
|â—¯ Pill Bugs (or Rollie Pollies)||â—¯ A slug|
|â—¯ Moss growing on a stump||â—¯ A salamander|
|â—¯ A millipede|
Good luck looking for decomposers! If you happen to visit Gilsland Farm with your family soon, see if you can spot the fallen tree I described at the beginning of this post…as a hint, it is closer to the meadows than the marsh…
Next Generation Science Standards
“Crosscutting Concepts” for all Elementary Grades in this module:
- Cause and Effect
- Systems and System Models
- Structure and Function
- Stability and Change
K Performance Expectations:
- Use observations to describe patterns of what plants and animals (including humans) need to survive. K-LS1-1
- Construct an argument supported by evidence for how plants and animals (including humans) can change the environment to meet their needs. K-ESS2-2
- Use a model to represent the relationship between the needs of different plants and animals (including humans) and the places they live. K-ESS3-1
2nd Grade Performance Expectations:
- Make observations of plants and animals to compare the diversity of life in different habitats. 2-LS4-1
- Use information from several sources to provide evidence that Earth events can occur quickly or slowly. 2-ESS1-1
- Make observations to construct an evidence-based account of how an object made of a small set of pieces can be disassembled and made into a new object. 2-PS1-3
3rd Grade Performance Expectations:
- Construct an argument that some animals form groups that help members survive. 3-LS2-1
- Construct an argument with evidence that in a particular habitat some organisms can survive well, some survive less well, and some cannot survive at all. 3-LS4-3
- Develop models to describe that organisms have unique and diverse life cycles but all have in common birth, growth, reproduction, and death. 3-LS1-1
- Use evidence to support the explanation that traits can be influenced by the environment. 3-LS3-2
4th Grade Performance Expectations:
- Construct an argument that plants and anials have internal and external structures that function to support survival, growth, behavior, and reproduction. 4-LS1-1
5th Grade Performance Expectations:
- Develop a model to describe the movement of matter among plants, animals, decomposers, and the environment. 5-LS2-1
NGSS Lead States. (2013). Next Generation Science Standards: For States, By States. Retrieved from http://www.nextgenscience.org/