Those days are long past. What is now called coarse woody
debris (CWD) is known to play major roles in ecosystem function. At one time
“dead wood” was the bane of foresters but now it is considered an environmental
boon. The US Forest Service, since the 1970s, has recognized the importance of
CWD in forests and has published the research described in several conferences.
The British were probably the first to recognize the
importance of CWD. Here is an early (1966) quote from Animal Population
Ecologist Charles Elton concerning the state of British woods: “When one walks
through the rather dull and tidy woodlands…that result from modern forestry
practices, it is difficult to believe that dying and dead wood provides one of
the two or three greatest resources for animal species in a natural forest, and
that if fallen timber and slightly decayed trees are removed the whole system
is gravely impoverished of perhaps more than a fifth of its fauna.”
According to Elton, and confirmed from numerous later
studies, large numbers of species of animals live in wood or under bark. Fungi,
especially lignin digesters such as basidiomycetes, use wood as their principal
carbon and energy source. Birds, small mammals, and other critters thrive on
CWD. Research has shown that biodiversity is many-fold higher with CWD on the
ground than without it.
Animals and fungi work together in the decomposition of CWD.
Smaller particles decompose more rapidly than larger, so that insects and other
animals that physically break down large pieces of wood, greatly increase
fungal activity. On the other hand, fungal infection promotes insect attack,
creating a feedback loop that greatly increases the rate of CWD decay.
Note that the animals involved in CWD decomposition are
different species from those that affect (grow on) living trees.
Coarse woody debris is much more common in unmanaged than in
managed forests. CWD is an indicator of an “old-growth”forest, as well as an
indicator of a high-biodiversity environment.
Stumps are a separate category. A stump has an above-ground
and a below-ground component. The below-ground portion is very important. As
much as 80% of total CWD carbon of a stump can be below ground (hidden).
From the time it dies, a dead tree contributes to many
- As a standing snag
- As a major piece of fallen woody material lying on and in
- Fuel for fire
- Biological decomposition
Which is the most important in recycling of CWD, fire or
biological activity? It depends on the species of wood, and the environment, Without fire nutrients may be tied up in dead woody material
for a long time.
Rate of decomposition varies greatly among the tree species.
Oaks of the white-oak group (white, bur, swamp white) are the most resistant to
Especially in colder climates, dead wood lasts a long time
on the ground, slowly being converted into carbon dioxide, minerals, humus, and
living critters. The rate of decay will depend upon the species, the size,
shape, and position relative to the forest floor, fire, and other factors.
Carbon release from decaying wood is a major component of
the global carbon balance and hence of major importance in climate-change
Wood decomposition is an aerobic process although slow
because of the presence of lignin in the heartwood. Lignin decomposition takes place primarily by white-rot fungi (Basidiomycetes).
Lignin is one of the mostly slowly decomposing components of wood. Because of
this, significant amounts of lignin remain when the other principal biochemical
components of wood, cellulose and hemicellulose, have been degraded. Residual
lignin is a major fraction of the soil humus.
Snags were once considered safety hazards and down wood was
considered unsightly, a haven for pests, and a fire hazard. Snags may still be
a safety hazard but the probability of falling at an inappropriate time is very
low. Snags are major habitats for birds.
Coarse woody debris
at Pleasant Valley Conservancy.
We don’t need quantitative methods to discern that the CWD
varies markedly from habitat to habitat at PVC.
Prairies, of course, have almost no CWD, whereas dense
woods, such as the north-facing slope, have large amounts. See last December's post.
Closed savannas have
more CWD than open savannas. In wetlands the amount of CWD varies. Stream
banks, with lots of willows, have lots of CWD, both near the bank and submerged
in the water.
|Oak savanna (Unit 19E) with scattered CWD.|
Note also the dead oaks in the background,destined to become future CWD
|This dead oak came down after the fire of 3-29-2016. Note that none of the wood is charred except the base..|
The dead base was weakened by the fire, and the snag came down in the next windstorm.
|The top end of the burned snag shown in the above photo. Lots of potential CWD here!|
|The cracks and tarnish indicate that this log has been down for some years.|
Note all the plants that are growing in and among this CWD.