The Dirt on Decomposers

Think about soil for a moment: the brown, lumpy, crusty stuff that makes up the ground you walk on. Have you ever wondered where it all comes from? Soil is the end result of a process called decomposition, which is the breakdown of organic material (dead plants and animals) by organisms called decomposers.

Decomposing Tree by NSF H.J. Andrews LTERWhen a dead tree falls in the forest, the first decomposers to start feasting are ones that feed directly on it, such as insects and fungi. After they have sufficiently broken down the wood into small chunks in the soil, the process is taken over by earthworms, springtails, and other soil-dwelling invertebrates. The remaining substance is broken down by bacteria and other microorganisms.

A healthy community of decomposers is vital to the survival of any ecosystem. They break down dead animals and plants into soil that living plants can use for nutrients, and they prevent these dead organisms from choking out new growth. Humans benefit, since this process yields the rich soil required to grow crops.

So why aren’t decomposers at the forefront of environmental welfare plans? Why don’t they adorn our “green” bumper stickers and posters? The problem—and this is true for many creatures, not just decomposers—is that they aren’t relatable. We identify with animals that seem likable to us, which normally means mammals and birds. Decomposers, despite the innumerable services they provide for both their ecosystems and us, get the short shrift when it comes to publicity.

The role of decomposers in the world is too significant to ignore. And ironically perhaps, most decomposers are small and easily ignored. An ecosystem without decomposers is like a house without a foundation—without the base on which to build itself up, it will soon collapse.

Decomposers are often derided as “garbage-eaters,” but a better analogy would be recyclers, since they process nutrients from one source to another and make it available for a new generation of consumers. And recycling, after all, is one of the oldest and best-known tenets of environmentalism. So perhaps it’s time to take a new approach to conserving decomposers—one that emphasizes their value to their ecosystems, and their roles as nature’s own recyclers.