The forest floor: Eat or be eaten


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The so-called ‘forest floor’ of the tropical rainforest is the most riveting two-dimensional space our planet holds. Turn any leaf over and the entire foundation of the excessively rich ecosystem that composes this unique environment is revealed. Along this flat clay-based plain, you will find the secret to much of the life that thrives above it.

In most of the world, decomposition rates of forests are slow, and although it’s not your everyday affair, corpses of dead animals are not uncommon, many times revealing themselves through their stench (which can last for days). But in the tropical rainforest, you’d have to be lucky to smell – let alone see – a decaying body. Death, which is certainly not a rare occurrence here, is so brief – with so many agents working at the same time to vanish its every trace – it only becomes an extension of the life it breeds.

Dead leaves vanish in weeks, massive fallen tree trunks vanish in only a few years… the entire forest floor can be considered a full-fledged digestive system, a complex community of stomachs and intestines.

Decomposed leaf.

One of the most important forest floor denizens are fungi, and one particular forest floor conglomerate, known as the mycorrhizal matt – a mix of fungi and root fiber – is responsible for much of the forest’s digestive work, including the efficient return of over 90% of the nutrients back into the trees. Nothing is lost. It is one of the most efficient biological mechanisms we know of, and it explains why the secret to the amazing life of the rainforest is not in its soil, but on it.

The jungle itself it’s one big organism, complex and exuberant

Other forest floor protagonists – which are also record-fast ‘decomposers’ – are insects, from ants and millipedes to stingless bees, termites and beetles. They chew on it all and make sure it’s clean as fast as possible; even mushrooms prey on dead spiders or moths. Another protagonist of the forest floor is animal dung. Dung is actually a very prized possession in the rainforest, and the moment it hits the ground, it will be horded by many, many species of insects (as many as 50 on a single excrement)!

The masters of decomposition: fungi.

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