Nature Nugget – July 28

If a tree falls in the forest…should it stay there?

We’ve all seen fallen trees in the woods. Whether it’s from a bad storm or just the end of a tree’s life, eventually a tree will die. If you’re like me, you’ve noticed that in some state parks and forests, when a tree falls it’s just left there. Coming from a world of manicured lawns where anything unsightly is removed, this always felt wrong to me. Shouldn’t they remove the log? Can’t it be used for something?

In today’s Nature Nugget, I want to talk about how dead and decaying trees actually form an important part of a forest’s ecosystem. Although the tree has died, its part in the story is just beginning! But first some terminology: a dead tree that has fallen is a log. A dead tree that is still standing is a snag.

Fallen tree that was cut to remove from trail

What do dead and decaying trees provide?

  • Roosting spot for birds such as woodpeckers
  • Main home for bugs like ants, beetles, wasps and bees. Dead logs are also prime homes for larger critters like salamanders, frogs, and even snakes. Some scientists estimate that dead wood provides food and homes for more than 40% of forest wildlife species!
  • Form the bottom of the food chain for detritivores (organisms that feed on dead material) like fungi and bacteria which are then consumed by other animals
Fungi growing on decomposed log
  • Prevents erosion by reducing stormwater runoff. Logs in running water also prevent bank erosion, as well as trap sediment so that it doesn’t flow any further along.
  • Replenishes nutrients in the soil. Research has shown that trees are the main source of organic material in soil!
  • Plays an important role in forest regeneration. Not only does a fallen tree open up the canopy and make room for new trees, they also can become an extremely fertile growing medium for seeds and seedlings that have gathered there.
  • In ponds and streams, downed trees serve as sunning spots for turtles, fishing perches for birds, and even nests for fish.
Turtles sunbathing on a log

I think it’s pretty clear that dead tree are essential to the forest ecosystem! Now some people might be wondering about dead hazards and that’s a good point! Dead trees, especially snags can be seen as a fire hazard. And with wildfires constantly in the news, it’s definitely something to be concerned about! But remember, some wildfires are natural and can even be good for the ecosystem. There are certain species of plant that even need fire in order to germinate! However, if you have a dead tree on your property, you should get it removed. Dead wood is still a fire hazard and also a falling hazard especially near homes and people. Leave the dead wood to the forest!

Dead and decaying trees form an important part of a forest’s ecosystem. That’s why they are often left on the forest floor in parks. It doesn’t mean that the park isn’t well taken care – quite the opposite actually! Next time you pass a decaying tree, just think of all the life that could be starting a new inside of it.