Wild Georgia: Decaying logs help make a healthy forest

You might have read about or saw on TV the two giant sequoia trees, each more than 150 feet tall, that fell to the ground last month along the Trail of the 100 Giants in the southern Sierra Nevada Mountains of California.

Amazingly, a tourist captured the spectacular event on video, which was shown on TV news across the country. The spectacle -- apparently from natural causes -- prompted TV commentators and others to ask the question: What to do with the fallen giants? Some suggested that the massive trees be split up for tons of firewood. Others opined that the trees should be sawed up to provide timber for new houses.

But ecologists have a far better idea: Let the trees be. When trees fall naturally in the forest -- whether from disease, old age, fierce storms or other reasons -- nature has other important jobs for them: Dead trees provide essential habitat for scores of wild creatures and play essential roles in nutrient recycling.

As my friend Jerry Hightower, a naturalist/ranger with the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area, often points out, dead and decaying trees are vital to the forest. Mushrooms and other fungi thrive on and around logs, breaking down the organic matter to release important nutrients back into the soil, thereby enriching it. Also, at some point in their life cycles, more than 60 percent of forest creatures use a dead tree for nourishment, shelter, egg-laying or other purposes.

Woodpeckers, flying squirrels, blue birds, wood ducks and other cavity nesters -- more than 30 species in Georgia -- make their homes in standing dead trees, or snags. When the snags topple to the ground, insects (including a variety of beetles), worms, snakes, lizards, toads, salamanders and other creatures move in. Salamanders often rely on the security and dampness of soil beneath a rotting log for survival.

Pileated woodpeckers and black bears forage for insects in the decaying wood. Raccoons, bobcats, foxes and other mammals make their dens in fallen hollow logs.

Young trees also may sprout from a downed log, known as a “nurse log.” In addition, dead wood serves as a ground cover, lessening soil erosion and preventing animals such as deer from overbrowsing plant seedlings.

So, in my mind, a decaying log is a beautiful thing in the forest.

In the sky: The South Taurid meteor shower will be visible all weekend and will reach a peak Saturday night of 15 meteors per hour, said David Dundee, an astronomer with the Tellus Science Museum. Look to the east from midnight until dawn.

Another meteor shower, the Leonid, will be visible most of next week, with the best viewing nights Tuesday and Wednesday. Look to the east from about 2 a.m. until dawn. The shower will peak at 15 meteors per hour. The light of the moon, though, may interfere with observing fainter meteors.

The moon will be last quarter on Friday. Mercury and Venus are low in the west just after sunset. Mars rises about four hours before sunrise. Jupiter rises out of the east at about sunset. Saturn rises out of the east about two hours before sunrise.