A monthly column in the Monadnock Ledger-Transcript.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Everything Rots

Even rot-loving fungus decomposes.
A quiz about decomposition

Not to sound like Debbie Downer, but let’s face it: Without death, there is no life. It’s the cycle of life.
And as that cycle goes round, the process of rot starts right after death.
Fall is a great time to celebrate rot. Leaves are falling. Vegetation is dying back. And the cycle of life is in full, glorious swing.
With that in mind, here’s a little quiz about rot.

1. The carpet of dried leaves, twigs and other plant debris on the forest floor is called the:
a. recycling layer.
b. leaf litter.
c. spread.
d. canopy.

2. The process where dead vegetation, animals and scat are converted from complex carbohydrates and proteins to basic atoms is called:
a. fission.
b. recycling.
c. decomposition.
d. recomposition.

3. Before rotting vegetation becomes soil, it goes through a transition stage known as:
a. humus - with one m.
b. hummus - with two m’s.
c. leaf litter.
d. photosynthesis.

4. Microscopic organisms that decompose organic matter include:
a. slime molds.
b. mycorrhizal fungi
c. mites and wood lice.
d. bacteria and protozoans.

5. One of the forest’s hard-working decomposers are called hyphae. These are:
a. tiny insects that eat dead plants and animals from the inside out.
b. worms that eat dead vegetation.
c. long strands of fungi.
d. mushrooms that sprout up in moist woods.

6. What rots faster?
a. skunk carcass.
b. maple leaf.
c. Twinkie.
d. oak log.

7. Consuming 80 to 90 percent of the energy in fallen debris are:
a. flies and maggots.
b. snails and slugs.
c. fungi and bacteria.
d. mice and moles.

The rotten answers:

1. b, leaf litter. This is where the recycling begins. Probe just a few leaf layers down and you see leaves riddled with holes by insects and mites, fungi and bacteria.

2. d, decomposition, though it is a form of natural recycling.

3. a. humus with one m. Hummus with two m’s is a Middle Eastern food spread. And there are two types of humus (one m): “mor,” which is seen in forests with thick litter layers, and “mull,” which is usually in forests with few conifers and has soils of low acidity.

4. d. bacteria and protozoans.

5. c, long strands of fungi that grow on or into their food sources, including leaves and other vegetation, carcasses, logs, scat … you name it. Just under the forest’s layer of leaves is a whole network of hyphae, called a mycelium. These networks are the main body of a fungus and may live for decades or longer. 

6. a, a skunk carcass, or most animals in general, because of their low ratio of carbon to nitrogen. Carbon represents the hard to decompose stuff, like cellulose, while nitrogen represents the easier to digest stuff, like proteins. An animal carcass is pretty easy to decompose and has a carbon/nitrogen ratio of about 3:1. By comparison, sugar maple has a carbon/nitrogen ratio of about 52:1. It can take years for a leaf to decompose. The Twinkie: Urban legend holds that they have a shelf life of decades, but folks who’ve studied rotting Twinkies (not me!) say they actually last about 25 days. So, if your answer was “Twinkie,” we’ll give it to you! 

7. c, fungi and bacteria. The rest of the plant and animal material, along with the fungi and bacteria themselves, form the food base for animals in the soil.

Eric Aldrich writes from his home in Hancock.