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Life After Death

Dead trees are important in nature as they support a variety of life.

A dead tree is proof of life after death, and here’s why: Compared with a living tree, more species of life—everything from woodpeckers to flying squirrels to fungi—benefit directly from the habitat and nourishment offered by trees in the afterlife. The moment a tree dies, or even as portions of it cease to live, hungry wildlife and microscopic organisms move in to do what must be done, which is to dissolve, chew and disassemble the cellulose and lignin structure we call wood into food and habitat.

Living trees are great, pumping oxygen into our atmosphere and extracting carbon dioxide while rooting down loose soil to check erosion. Living trees also offer up green leaves, seeds and fruits to feed the masses out there. True, when life ends for a tree, some of those species of hungry wildlife must wander elsewhere. But crowds of other forest life move in. This is where the old tree gets really crowded as the diversity of species utilizing the tree skyrockets. Gone are the warbler nests hidden by green leaves. Arriving are cavity-nesting owls and wide-winged vultures (enjoying the twig-free branches), plus honeybees, bats and cicada killers. Consecutive generations of raccoons might live in a large dead tree cavity for a decade or more.

Meanwhile, unseen life that hadn’t been around when the tree was living becomes active. Bacteria, nematodes and a huge number of species of fungi dissolve and push through the cell walls and fissures, staking out feeding territory and processing the “inedible” wood into food for other wildlife, including masses of invertebrates. Woodpeckers are wise to this wild party and show up to poke under bark and rip open soft wood to pluck out feeding insects that were attracted to the microscopic food being manufactured by this unseen micro-community of life.

Occasionally, protein-packed mushrooms—the fruiting bodies of fungi—might sprout from the side of the dead tree, attracting more insects and hungry wildlife. Eventually, when enough wildlife has chewed and dissolved the structure of the dead tree, it falls over. On the forest floor, it might become a hollow log where bobcats, snakes and a variety of forest creatures reside. The remains of the tree will continue to feed the forest, slowly being nibbled upon, dissolved and converted into nutrients other life in the forest needs. 

Interrupting this natural process—cutting down a tree simply because it died—deprives a huge number of species of the habitat and food they would much prefer you left standing.


By: Joe McFarland
Woodpecker cavities in dead tree
Raccoons in dead tree cavity
Swallows perched on dead tree
Woodpecker cavities and feeding activity on dead tree
Fungi return nutrients to soil after tree falls to the ground