Discovering Nature's Recyclers
What's creepier than a close look at forest floor critters? Some of them slide along the leaf litter leaving a slimy trail behind, others have tiny fangs and lots of legs, and still others roll around or jump when they are uncovered. And what about those crazy colored mushrooms and black dots on leaves? The forest floor is a fascinating place when you take the time to slow down, get low down and view it with through a hand lens.
Jana McGloughlin's 2nd grade class from Bluff Elementary visited the Forest Classroom at the County Farm in Unity last week to learn about these creepy critters and the important role many of them play as decomposers. Consider how full of leaves the forest might be if there was nothing to break them all down into smaller pieces and digest them. We would all be wading through leaf litter.
The students found many colors of fungi including red, orange, white, green, and even blue! All that rain made the forest floor nice and wet, which meant that slugs and earthworms were abundant, especially under rolled logs. The worms were the students' favorite find and they were sharing and comparing them.
This was great, because after the critter search, they headed up to the Ahern Building to eat lunch and study earthworms like scientists. They observed and sketched the worms first. The longest ones measured over 9 inches! It was tricky to tell which side was the head or the tail as the worm moved
forward with both ends. And when given a choice between moving towards a light (made by a flashlight), staying put in the room light, or moving to a dirt pile, the worms overwhelmingly chose to get out of the light and hide in the dirt pile.
Worms sure are weird creatures. They have 5 hearts, are both male and female at the same time, have no eyes, but can tell when they are in the light, and dig tunnels with no hands or feet! And despite popular belief, if they are ripped in half, they don't grow into 2 worms. The head end might be able to make a tail, but the tail end cannot make a head.
Though many people consider worms and other forest floor critters creepy and gross, they are nature's recyclers. They consume waste and dead stuff - breaking it down into smaller pieces and turning it into a form that plants can reuse. We couldn't survive without decomposers fulfilling their role in the forest or any other ecosystem for that matter. It's a dirty job, but something's gotta do it!