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  • Writer's pictureAlistair

Introducing the Detritivores ...


It is all too easy to think of this time of year as one of death and decay in nature.  The leaves have fallen and not so much seems to be going on.  We are waiting for spring and for life to return.  But, of course, there is a lot of life in decay.  It is essentially the first stage in nature’s recycling process, whereby dead tissues break down and are converted into less complex organic structures which become the building blocks of new life.

 

And just who gets on and does the work?  Well, the detritivore’s, of course!  They may be seen as motley crew which includes things like bacteria, fungi and mould through to the giants of their world such as beetles, larvae, maggots, flies, snails, slugs and worms.  But they are superheroes.  Without them, stuff would just keep piling up.  Bit like landfill.  In fact, there are scientists trying to figure out how to get some of the detritivores to work on some of the mess we’ve created, breaking down plastics and the like.

 

Anyway, now is a good time to see some of this work going on.  Two years ago, storm Arwen knocked down a fair few trees at Cefn Garthenor.  Some were dragged into the middle of fields to provide a protected habitat for a bunch of critters.  A safe zone for voles, mice, reptiles and amphibians.  Somewhere the buzzard and polecat would struggle to operate and where the cattle would not munch too much.  But the detritivores moved in too.

 


The most obvious signs are the fungi and lichens on the dead wood.  And at this time of year these incredible organisms are out in full force.  It is worth taking a close look as they are stunning.  And to be found in any garden corner, forgotten bit of the park or derelict site.  The photos below were all taken on one piece of wood.

 

Top to bottom: Candlesnuff fungi, Turkey Tail fungi, Hair Curtain Crust fungi (aka False Turkey Tail!)

Lichens are particularly fascinating.  They are not just one “thing” but actually combine two organisms working together in a stable way.  They combine a fungus, which quite likes to feed on a sugar, with either algae or cyanobacteria, which can photosynthesise, creating sugars.  The fungi seem to build a structure in which algae or cyanobacteria can thrive.  Are the fungi farming the algae?  Who knows.  It may be mutually beneficial as the algae or cyanobacteria do much better within the lichen system than outside it.  The ones I’ve photographed are living on the deadwood.  But lichen can also feed on, err, other lichen.  It’s a lichen eat lichen world.  What lichens are not is plants … they like a similar environment to the mosses you’ll often find them next to, but are very different.

 

Top: Black Stone Flower Lichen, Bottom: Crab Eye Lichen

I’m sure I’ve over simplified, but hopefully that makes some kind of sense.


A pretty face: a reward for getting to the end of this post

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