The Tyler woodland habitat spreads over more than 500 acres and contains many habitats. Forests, meadows, serpentine barrens, streams and marshes – all of these larger habitats exist in the landscape. But so do smaller, more secret ecosystems. One of the most interesting is the microhabitat found in a simply fallen log. Each decaying log is an ecosystem supporting life at many levels. Here you will find decomposers (like snails, millipedes, fungi), consumers (salamanders, spiders, insects and other invertebrates) and producers (ferns, mosses).
There is particular beauty at the first stage of decay as the fungi turn the deadwood in the log into the nutrients that re-spins the cycle of life in this little habitat. The varied and fascinating mushrooms we might see are the fruiting bodies of the fungi, which extend under the bark and through the wood as vast thread-like structures called mycelium. These fruiting bodies can take many fascinating forms. Look for fan-shaped turkey-tails and similar shelf fungus. Take a look as we wander through these ecosystems to see which mushrooms (and other decomposers) we can find.
Decay might not be the first thing you think of when you imagine beauty – or even ecological function- but maybe it should be. Without these decomposers, our world would look very different. Primary succession occurs when the first tiny plants – like mosses and lichens – creep across barren, empty landscapes. These plants live their lives, reproduce, perish and decay, leaving the beginnings of soil. Because of the hard work of these decomposers, the mightiest of forests can grow from what was once barren rock. These organisms, the plants and fungi that do the invisible work of recycling all the matter in the world are patient stewards of the land they inhabit.
They are beautiful too. From the delicate filaments of a moss archegonium to the eerie glow of a phosphorescent mushroom, they deserve credit for their loveliness, secretive though it may be. So next time you take a walk in the forest, look up to appreciate the majesty of the trees – then look down to experience the quiet wonder of the decomposers that sustain the ecosystem.
Photos by Dave Charlton