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BREAKING NEWS: Trees caught littering in the forest

Local authorities were shocked when dozens of witnesses reported observing an increase in littering offences by local broadleaf trees in the black forest during the last few weeks, as it happened in the past years, too. Apparently, the littering has once again escalated to the point that big patches of forest floor are covered by golden-red leaves, hiding the sometimes already several centimetre-high layer of permanent leaf litter accumulating over the year, due to the repeated failure at establishing a regular forest vacuuming routine. As experts point out, we reached a point where we not only have to differentiate between broadleaf-based, conifer-based and mixed leaf litter but also consider the several different layers within a leaf litter profile which provide habitats to a wide variety of inhabitants with special skill sets. Indeed, these so called “specialists”, including many animals like small mammals, myriapods, insects, mollusca, arachnids and many more, can go about their business fairly safe and hidden from outside intervention. However, according to our inside sources, within the litter safety is a relative concept, as some subjects associated with the predatory milieu, like the ferocious centipedes and carabids, hold permanent positions of power within the community. Additionally, as if this neglect of law and order was not enough, the air stuck between the leaves works as an isolation layer, similar to the downs in a winter jacket, making piles of leaf litter, stabilized by mixed in branches, perfect hideouts to lay low in for a few winter months, making them attractive to wanted delinquents like blindworm (main suspect in disappearance cases of several snails and caterpillars) and hedgehog (wanted for involvement in systematic broadscale cat food theft). Against common expectation, it seems to be the lower levels of the leaf litter that are much quieter and civilised, if one might believe the claims of sympathizers, even of central importance to ecosystem functioning. Here a diligent two-party system, the detrivores and decomposers, succeeds where we fail, preventing excessive leaf litter accumulation by remineralisation of organic matter. The detrivores are mostly made up of arthropods and annelids which obtain nutrients by consuming decomposing plant or animal parts. They are publicly represented by their spokespersons earthworm and millipede, who are renowned for their controversial campaign to establish a “NoVeggie – Only Soil” day in canteens. The decomposers are withholding an opinion towards this matter, because they can’t actually ingest anything, they only absorb via chemical and biochemical processes. Bacteria and fungi make up the central mass of decomposers, with the fungi often being the primary decomposer due to its ability to penetrate large pieces of matter with its hyphae. The lower level of the leaf litter prides itself in being among the top exporters of quality humus, with the soil layer below being its primary patron.

Is the leaf litter out of control? Who are really the central figures in this grand scheme and are we enabling them with the way we manage the forest above them? September 2021 our team of investigators collected leaf litter samples on 66 of our research plots and sent them for eDNA metabarcoding of arthropods. Hopefully by next year we have managed to get a bit closer to answering these questions. B4 News will keep you posted.

By Jr. Special Investigator,

Laura-Sophia Ruppert (B4)