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Dead Trees Are Anything But Dead
I recently learned that dead trees provide vital habitat for more than 1,000 species of wildlife nationwide. The two most common types of dead wood you’ll find in your yard, along a trail or at a park are snags (upright) and logs (on the ground). Despite their name, dead trees are crawling with life. From the basking lizards on top to the beetles underneath, the list of wildlife that depend on logs feels endless. Here’s a sampling of what you may find if you explore a log more closely. What have you observed on, under or near a dead tree?
Summer is a fantastic time to find lizards, turtles and other cold-blooded species basking in the sun. This behavior is primarily a matter of thermoregulation, but may also be a means to acquire Vitamin D. Ants, snails and other insects are often found crawling along a log, while chipmunks and squirrels may use it as a place to rest. Plus mushrooms tend to grow here, whose mycelium helps the wood decay.
Hollow logs provide great cover for small mammals like foxes, rabbits, bobcats, skunks and raccoons. Bobcats are known to nap inside logs, while foxes may use it as a place to build their den. The inside of a log also provides protection from some predators. The picture below is of a red-tail hawk attempting to get a squirrel, who cleverly took refuge inside a log.
Logs also provide bountiful food and shelter for many small critters that live right in the wood. These include many beetles and bees like carpenter bees, which dig tunnels in the logs. Colonies of termites and carpenter ants depend on dead trees and logs, chewing through the wood to build their chambers. Under the bark are…no surprise…bark beetles, which leave behind galleries or tracks of their paths on the wood surface directly under the bark. Slime molds, often brightly colored, use the nutrients of decaying logs.
A nature walk rarely feels complete without flipping at least one log. The treasures beneath a log may include beetles, worms, spiders, salamanders, newts and centipedes. What you find on your flipping adventure will depend on the time of year, weather, moisture, and a number of other factors, but it’s all worth it. As you turn the log over, roll it back towards you, using it as a barrier and giving critters a chance to get away.
Snakes will often use the space next to a log to rest or look for food. Since logs are crawling with life (prey to a snake), it’s a good place to find a meal. They might also curl up against or inside a log to rest and stay hidden from predators. Egg-laying snake species like rat snakes may deposit their clutches in or under a logs to keep them protected.
Moss, fungi and lichen are a few special organisms that can be found growing on logs. The simple structure of mosses (a type of bryophyte) allow them to grow where other plants may not be able. Dead wood is a place where many species of lichen and fungi thrive as well.
Whether you explore logs along your next nature walk. or decide to keep some in your backyard, logs need some appreciation. They provide both cover and a place for wildlife to raise their young. It’s also a step toward qualifying your yard as an official Certified Wildlife Habitat.
Understandably, not everyone wants or has space for dead wood in their yard, but it is a great way to attract wildlife. You can visit a local nature site and investigate the wildlife that depend on logs in your area. Enter your zip code into Nature Find to get a list of parks and trails nearby.