Celebrating Dead Wood

When I was a youngster, I made a discovery so shockingly glorious that I still search for the feeling it gave me to this day. I decided for the first time to flip a piece of dead wood. What was under this log awoke something in me that felt like it predated back thousands of years. The feeling was so alluring, soothing and utterly thrilling! Finding things. This feeling is everything…searching and finding, and relishing at the magic of nature. What did I find? An Eastern Red-backed Salamander.

The thing was, I had absolutely no idea that salamanders existed! To me, this animal was completely novel. It was snake-like, but with the most adorable little limbs! It looked waxy, smooth and shiny, boasting two large eyes and a handsome red stripe. This salamander was the greatest creature I had ever seen and my heart filled with awe.

What are the happenings at the site of a single dead log? Who shows up? Who stays, comes and goes? Why should you love your local dead logs as much as you love your local birds and flowers? I’ll tell you.

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It is so often the underappreciated parts of an ecosytem that form the building blocks for the elements that are most cherished by humans. The things we label as gross or burdensome in fact play indispensible roles. They are the life source for the charismatic creatures that are popular and loved, and they are incredibly neat!


Dead wood is an ecological house party and many are invited. The variety of species that live inside, around, on top of and underneath dead wood is astounding. This list includes the obvious: worms, isopods, salamanders, centipedes, ants…. And the not-so obvious: bears, bats and even large cats! A single stick could be home for fungi, protizoae, bacteria, springtails, mites and many other micro-fauna.

Consider ants. Their bodies are built for incredible feats of strength and enduarance. Living up to 30 years and having jaw parts that can move at a speed of nearly 400km/hr, these tiny creatures are rather impressive. Dead logs are a prefered habitat for many ant speices, and ants are a prefered food souce for certain bear populations! Some BC populations of bears are dependent on ants as a food source when berries become sparse. The roles of ants go far beyond this example, but it gives us an idea of the connections to be made.


Dead wood is an ecological house party and the food is pleantiful. The creatures that dwell near or within dead wood are an important food source for the forest, as is the dead wood itself.

Fungi, for example, are a major food source for many animals like slugs, squirrels and deer. Fungi love dead wood and are consummate decomposers. Consider a tree that has fallen after 800 years of life. Who has walked by this tree in the past 800 years? What has happened above its root system? What has this tree witnessed?

An organism this old has aquired mass amounts of nutrients in its voyage to become a towering and fantastical old growth tree. Within the now-dead tree is a cache of nutrients, but not just anyone can eat dead wood!

Fungi, using fine filliments called mycelia, excrete enzymes that break down dead wood for their consumption. Tree’s cell walls contain lignin which allows them to stand tall and avoid rot—it is very difficult to break down. In fact, fungi are the only major group that can break down lignin. They are effectively a giant digestive tract for the forest! They take the nutrients in wood and turn it into food for the whole ecosytem.


Dead wood is an ecological houseparty and the performers are incredible! Dead wood isn’t just an important habitat and part of a diverse food system. It provides numerous ecosytem functions. It stores carbon which is slowly released as it is broken down and can be used by the forest and its organisms. Removing the wood robs the soil and micro-organisms of carbon stores, and burning the wood releases carbon into the environment too quickly.

Logs, snags, and trunks create habitat diversity and can provide shade for new seedlings, or help keep moisture in the ecosytem during dry seasons. In areas near water (riparian zones), dead logs can stabilize soil, provide nutrients to the aquatic ecosytem, divert waterflows…the list goes on and on.


Dead wood is an ecological house party and you are invited (if you follow house rules).

While I don’t recommend flipping over dead wood all over the forest (it could be disruptive to its inhabitants), I invite you to spend some time with it.

Find a log and imagine all that has happened at the site of this once tree, now log. What has it seen? How many organisms have used this wood? Thousands? Millions? Billions? How many nutrients have cycled through this micro-habitat? How many connections have been made?

Perhaps the dead wood will spark a poem, a painting, a one-act play, a conversation or even just an acknowledgment. “Good job wood, you’ve done more than I can imagine.”

Join Us

Join us this summer at the Nature Sanctuary for one of our children’s, family or adult programs and you will also find wonder in nature! See our calendar, register, and learn about our programs on our website: swanlake.bc.ca or follow us @SwanLakeNature.

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