In an Ozark forest, a pile of dead leaves no bigger than this magazine is home to nearly 6,000 tiny creatures. They have an important job: turning nature’s trash— leaves, dead things, animal waste—into nutrients that plants need to grow. Let’s take a micro-hike through the leaf litter to learn more about nature’s tiny recyclers.
Slugs, sow bugs and millipedes, like many creatures on the forest floor, chomp leaves into tiny pieces. Then, bacteria, fungi and other microscopic critters turn the crumbs left behind into nutrients. It takes this team of recyclers up to two years to turn a single leaf into plant food.
Sometimes recyclers get recycled. In addition to leaves, springtails eat bacteria and fungi. Although they’re no bigger than the “s” in small, springtails can fling themselves 4 inches into the air. If you could jump like that, you could leap over a 20-story building! Springtails spring to avoid becoming a red velvet mite’s meal. By gobbling creatures that eat bacteria and fungi, velvet mites keep recycling chugging along.
Nature wastes nothing, not even— ahem—waste. Dung beetles roll balls of poop away from the pile to munch on later. They also lay their eggs inside the balls so their babies have plenty to eat. Some dung beetles can pull more than 1,000 times their own weight. You’d have to drag three school buses filled with kids to do the same!
Oak trees turn nutrients into acorns. Turkeys turn acorns into muscle. Hunters turn turkeys into food. And, the cycle begins and ends with tiny recyclers such as sow bugs, springtails and dung beetles!
Nichole LeClair Terrill