The autumn leaves now adorning forests with rich color and drawing legions of leaf peepers to North Georgia’s mountains will fall soon. But on the ground, they are destined for another important role — revitalizing the forest.
The leaves might not be of much interest to us after they drop off the trees, but on the forest floor, they become crucial to forest health. After the tons of leaves, twigs and other plant matter land on the ground, countless tiny creatures known as detritivores — beetles, woodlice, millipedes, centipedes, slugs, maggots, earthworms and others — slowly shred and break up the material into tiny pieces for food and other purposes.
Then, mind-boggling numbers of fungi, bacteria and other microbes living in the soil (a teaspoon of topsoil may harbor billions of them) take over. Using enzymes, they reduce the remaining bits of plant matter to basic nutrients and molecules, such as ammonium, phosphate and potassium. The substances will enrich the soil and nourish trees, wildflowers and other plants for next spring’s growth.
Without this steady, efficient recycling, a forest would be buried in fallen leaves. Instead, healthy forest floors are covered only with a few inches of leaves and other plant material throughout the year — the so-called “leaf litter,” which itself is an essential component of forest ecology.
Untold numbers of insects, reptiles, amphibians and other creatures live, feed and hide in the leaf litter. Numerous songbirds forage in it, and it plays a major role in water conservation.
So, perhaps the leaves that pile up on the ground in autumn should get more respect — as they do when they are sporting their dazzling colors on the trees.
IN THE SKY: From David Dundee, Tellus Science Museum astronomer: The North Taurid Meteor shower will reach a peak of about 15 meteors per hour on Monday night in the east. Best viewing times are from about midnight until dawn.
The moon will be first quarter on Thursday. Mercury is low in the west just after sunset. Venus is very low in the east just before sunrise. Mars is in the southwest at dusk and will appear near the moon on Thursday night. Saturn is very low in the southwest just after dark and will appear near the moon Saturday night.
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