Nature’s Recyclers

Courtesy and copyright Andrea Liberatore, Stokes Nature Center, http://logannature.org/
Fungi Decomposing Fall
Leaves Outside the
Stokes Nature Center
Courtesy & © 2011 Andrea Liberatore
Stokes Nature Center
 

Courtesy and copyright Andrea Liberatore, Stokes Nature Center, http://logannature.org/Redworms Eisenia fetida
from Stokes Nature Center’s
vermicomposting system
Courtesy & © 2011 Andrea Liberatore
Stokes Nature Center

On November 15th, our nation celebrates America Recycles Day. While the day itself tends to focus on human recycling activity, I thought we should also give a nod to nature’s recyclers. Worms, maggots, fungi, beetles, and bacteria – it sounds like a list of leftover Halloween horrors. But in reality, we should be more afraid of what our world would look like without these creepy-crawlies, for these are nature’s recyclers. Scientists call these organisms saprophytes, and as important as their role in life is, they are more likely to evoke a shudder than any feeling of gratitude.

What decomposers actually do is break dead things down into smaller and smaller pieces, until all that is left are the basic molecular components that make up all living things such as nitrogen, phosphorous, carbon, and potassium. Once broken down, this material is then free to be taken up again by plants and animals that use them to live and grow. This cycle of nutrients is vital to life on Earth, and our saprophytic friends make it all possible.

While decomposition would occur even without the help of the decomposers, it would take much, much longer. In some landfills, newspapers have been unearthed that are more than 20 years old, and still quite readable. This is because landfills often create anaerobic environments, where oxygen-loving insects, fungi, and bacteria cannot live and therefore cannot aid decomposition. If without decomposers, a newspaper can last 20 years, what would happen to much larger and hardier items such as tree trunks and roadkill? I shudder to think about it.

Did you know that the U.S. throws more than 33 million tons of food waste into landfills each year? This organic material goes to waste there – taking up valuable space and taking longer than normal break down. So this year, celebrate America Recycles Day by employing some of nature’s recyclers in your yard. Consider starting a compost pile where your fall leaves and food scraps can get broken down into nutrient-rich all-natural fertilizer for next year’s garden.

For composting tips and more information about nature’s recyclers, visit Wild About Utah online at www.wildaboututah.org. Thank you to the Rocky Mountain Power Foundation for the research and development of this Wild About Utah topic. For the Stokes Nature Center and Wild About Utah, this is Andrea Liberatore.

For the Stokes Nature Center and Wild About Utah, this is Andrea Liberatore.

Credits:

Photos: Courtesy & © 2011 Andrea Liberatore, http://logannature.org/
Text:    Andrea Liberatore, Stokes Nature Center, logannature.org

Composting Tips & Information:

Farrell-Poe, K. and Koenig, R. (2010) Backyard Composting in Utah. Utah State University Cooperative Extension. http://extension.usu.edu/files/publications/factsheet/HG-Compost-01.pdf

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency: Composting. http://www.epa.gov/epawaste/conserve/rrr/composting/index.htm

Additional Reading:

Fogel, R. (2002) Waste Not, Want Not: Fungi as Decomposers. Utah State University Herbarium. http://herbarium.usu.edu/fungi/funfacts/decay.htm

Hoff, M. (2009) Young Naturalists: Nature’s Recyclers. Minnesota Conservation Volunteer Newsletter. July-August 2009. http://files.dnr.state.mn.us/publications/volunteer/young_naturalists/natures_recyclers/natures_recyclers.pdf

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (2011) Basic Information About Food Waste. http://www.epa.gov/osw/conserve/materials/organics/food/fd-basic.htm

Earthworms

Click for a larger view of an earthworm, Courtesy and copyright 2013 Andrea Liberatore, Photographer
Earthworm (Nightcrawler)
Lumbricus terrestris
Copyright 2013
Andrea Liberatore, Photographer
 

Click for a larger view of a worm, Courtesy and copyright 2013 Andrea Liberatore, Photographer3Red Garbage Eating Earthworm
Eisenia foetida
Copyright 2013
Andrea Liberatore, Photographer

 

Click for a larger view of a fossil, Courtesy FWS, Cara Schildtknecht PhotographerA child shows others the worm
she found while helping plant the
pollinator garden at the FWS National
Conservation Training Center Garden
Courtesy FWS
Cara Schildtknecht, Photographer

 

As we enter into May, the familiar old rhyme of ‘April showers bring May flowers’ is proving to be true. But April showers always seem to bring something else out worth noticing – earthworms! A walk in the neighborhood the morning after a spring rainstorm reveals pink, wiggling – or sometimes not wiggling – worms on the sidewalks, streets, and lawns. This behavior obviously makes the robins happy, but I can’t imagine it’s all that good for the worms themselves. So what’s going on?

While worms need to be moist at all times, it turns out that they can’t handle too much water. Worms have no lungs, and instead breathe directly through their skin. A little bit of moisture facilitates the exchange of air into and out of their bodies, but too much moisture inhibits this process, essentially suffocating them. Another hypothesis suggests that worms might take advantage of the moist environment to travel. When the air is dry, worms are restricted to underground movement, which takes considerable time and effort. After a spring rain, however, they can travel across the surface, moving faster than they otherwise would.

Not all earthworms are alike – there are upwards of 7,000 known species and counting. They can range in size from less than an inch to over six feet long, and are distinguished by size, body shape, color, and many other minute differences. For simplicity’s sake, worms can be divided into three broad categories based on where they are found in the ground. The first group – called the Epigenic species – are found very close to the surface of the soil, typically in the leaflitter layer. These are the worms used for vermicomposting because they rapidly break down large volumes of organic matter. The second group – the Endogenic species – are found in the upper soil levels and do not have permanent burrows. They are constantly moving, eating all the while and filling up their burrows with their waste – called worm castings – as they go. Lastly, there are the deep burrowing Anecic species, which contains the familiar nightcrawler. Anecic species create more permanent burrow systems that can be quite extensive and stretch several feet deep. They frequently visit the soil surface to locate and pull organic matter down below, leaving little piles of castings at the burrow entrance.

Contrary to popular belief, earthworms don’t in fact eat dirt, or even dead and decaying matter. Instead, they feed on the bacteria and fungi that live on the dead and decaying matter, breaking that stuff into smaller pieces in the process. This, of course, greatly aids decomposition, making new nutrients available to plants. In fact, worms are of great assistance to the average gardener. As they move through the soil in search of food, they increase the porosity of the ground which allows rainwater to seep in and stay there longer. Worms are constantly on the move – carrying nutrients from the surface down into the lower layers of the soil and vice versa as they go, all the while providing channels for plant roots to easily follow.

Any search for earthworm information uncovers a litany of amazing facts. Earthworms have five hearts. They are hermaphrodites – meaning they have both male and female characteristics. In one acre of productive land, there can be as many as one million earthworms. And perhaps strangest of all – the abundant earthworm is not native to any part of North America once covered by glaciers. But there is one common wives’ tale that is too good to be true. If you cut an earthworm in half, it will not create two worms. While worms can regrow parts of their bodies, a headless worm segment cannot grow a new head. If the damage is not too extensive, however, the tailless worm can grow a new tail. So be kind to the worms wiggling out onto your sidewalk after a hard rain. If you’re feeling extra generous, you might even relocate a few to a stretch of lawn or garden – perhaps saving them from the watchful eye of the ever-present robins.

For pictures of worms and a lesson plan on making mini worm habitats, visit www.wildaboututah.org.

For the Stokes Nature Center and Wild About Utah, this is Andrea Liberatore.

Credits:

Photos: Courtesy & © Andrea Liberatore
Text:    Andrea Liberatore, Stokes Nature Center, logannature.org

 

Additional Reading:

Appelhof, Mary (1997) Worms Eat My Garbage. Flower Press. Kalamazoo, MI http://www.amazon.com/Worms-Eat-My-Garbage-Composting/dp/0977804518

Edwards, Clive A. Soil Biology. Chapter 8: Earthworms. A publication of the United States Department of Agriculture. Available online at: http://soils.usda.gov/sqi/concepts/soil_biology/earthworms.html

Ransford, Matt (2008) Science of the Everyday: Why Earthworms Surface. Popular Science. Available online at: http://www.popsci.com/scitech/article/2008-03/science-everyday-why-earthworms-surface

Utah LessonPlans (2007) Making a Mini Worm Habitat. Utah State Office of Education. Available online at: http://www.uen.org/Lessonplan/preview.cgi?LPid=18886

Nature’s Recyclers

Fungi Decomposing Fall
Leaves Outside the
Stokes Nature Center
Courtesy & © 2011 Andrea Liberatore
Stokes Nature Center


Redworms Eisenia fetida
from Stokes Nature Center’s
vermicomposting system
Courtesy & © 2011 Andrea Liberatore
Stokes Nature Center

On Tuesday, November 15th, our nation celebrates America Recycles Day. While the day itself tends to focus on human recycling activity, I thought we should also give a nod to nature’s recyclers. Worms, maggots, fungi, beetles, and bacteria – it sounds like a list of leftover Halloween horrors. But in reality, we should be more afraid of what our world would look like without these creepy-crawlies, for these are nature’s recyclers. Scientists call these organisms saprophytes, and as important as their role in life is, they are more likely to evoke a shudder than any feeling of gratitude.

What decomposers actually do is break dead things down into smaller and smaller pieces, until all that is left are the basic molecular components that make up all living things such as nitrogen, phosphorous, carbon, and potassium. Once broken down, this material is then free to be taken up again by plants and animals that use them to live and grow. This cycle of nutrients is vital to life on Earth, and our saprophytic friends make it all possible.

While decomposition would occur even without the help of the decomposers, it would take much, much longer. In some landfills, newspapers have been unearthed that are more than 20 years old, and still quite readable. This is because landfills often create anaerobic environments, where oxygen-loving insects, fungi, and bacteria cannot live and therefore cannot aid decomposition. If without decomposers, a newspaper can last 20 years, what would happen to much larger and hardier items such as tree trunks and roadkill? I shudder to think about it.

Did you know that the U.S. throws more than 33 million tons of food waste into landfills each year? This organic material goes to waste there – taking up valuable space and taking longer than normal break down. So this year, celebrate America Recycles Day by employing some of nature’s recyclers in your yard. Consider starting a compost pile where your fall leaves and food scraps can get broken down into nutrient-rich all-natural fertilizer for next year’s garden.

If you’re in Cache Valley and are looking for a way to mark America Recycles Day, please join the Stokes Nature Center for a tour of the Logan landfill to find out what happens to your garbage and how recycling programs ensure there is less of it. This free tour will be held at 4:30pm on Tuesday, November 15th. For details, visit the Stokes Nature Center website at www.logannature.org.

For composting tips and more information about nature’s recyclers, visit Wild About Utah online at www.wildaboututah.org. Thank you to the Rocky Mountain Power Foundation for the research and development of this Wild About Utah topic. For the Stokes Nature Center and Wild About Utah, this is Andrea Liberatore.

For the Stokes Nature Center and Wild About Utah, this is Andrea Liberatore.

Credits:

Photos: Courtesy & © 2011 Andrea Liberatore, http://logannature.org/
Text:    Andrea Liberatore, Stokes Nature Center, logannature.org

Composting Tips & Information:

Farrell-Poe, K. and Koenig, R. (2010) Backyard Composting in Utah. Utah State University Cooperative Extension. http://extension.usu.edu/files/publications/factsheet/HG-Compost-01.pdf

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency: Composting. http://www.epa.gov/epawaste/conserve/rrr/composting/index.htm

Additional Reading:

Fogel, R. (2002) Waste Not, Want Not: Fungi as Decomposers. Utah State University Herbarium. http://herbarium.usu.edu/fungi/funfacts/decay.htm

Hoff, M. (2009) Young Naturalists: Nature’s Recyclers. Minnesota Conservation Volunteer Newsletter. July-August 2009. http://files.dnr.state.mn.us/publications/volunteer/young_naturalists/natures_recyclers/natures_recyclers.pdf

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (2011) Basic Information About Food Waste. http://www.epa.gov/osw/conserve/materials/organics/food/fd-basic.htm