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Fungi are still mostly the first agents of decay, and there are many species that grow in dead wood. The common names of species such as the wet rot fungus Coniophora puteana and the jelly rot fungus Phlebia tremellosa indicate their role in helping wood to decompose. The growth of the fungal hyphae within the wood helps other detritivores, such as bacteria and beetle larvae, to gain access.

The fungi feed on the cellulose and lignin, converting those into their softer tissues, which in turn begin to decompose when the fungal fruiting bodies die. Many species of slime mould also grow inside dead logs and play a role in decomposition.

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Like fungi, they are generally only visible when they are ready to reproduce and their fruiting bodies, or sporocarps, appear. Some decomposers are highly-specialised. For example, the earpick fungus Auriscalpium vulgare grows out of decaying Scots pine cones that are partially or wholly buried in the soil, while another fungus Cyclaneusma minus grows on the fallen needles of Scots pine.

As the wood becomes more penetrated and open, through, for example, the galleries produced by beetle larvae, it becomes wetter and this facilitates the next phase of decomposition. Invertebrates such as woodlice and millipedes feed on the decaying wood, and predators and parasites , such as robber flies and ichneumon wasps, will also arrive, to feed on beetles and other invertebrates.

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For trees such as birch Betula spp. Earthworms and springtails are often seen at this stage, when the decomposing wood will soon become assimilated into the soil, and they can reach high densities - the biomass of earthworms in broadleaved forests in Europe has been estimated at up to one tonne per hectare. The wood of Scots pine, however, has a high resin content, which makes it much more resistant to decay, and it can take several decades for a pine log to decompose fully.

Most fungi, being soft-bodied and having a high water content, decompose quickly, often disintegrating and disappearing within a few days or weeks of fruiting. The tougher, more woody fungi, such as the tinder fungus Fomes fomentarius and other bracket fungi, can persist for several years. However, in many cases they have specialist decomposers at work on them. The tinder fungus, for example, is the host for the larvae of the black tinder fungus beetle Bolitophagus reticulatus and the forked fungus beetle Bolitotherus cornutus , which feed on the fungal fruiting body, helping to break down its woody structure.

Another bracket fungus that, like the tinder fungus, grows on dead birch trees, is the birch polypore Piptoporus betulinus , and it in turn is colonised by the ochre cushion fungus Hypocrea pulvinata , which feeds on and breaks down the polypore's brackets. The bolete mould fungus Hypomyces chrysospermus is another species that grows on fungi, in this case members of the bolete group, which have pores on the underside of their caps instead of gills and includes edible species such as the cep Boletus edulis.

The silky piggyback fungus Asterophora parasitica and its close relative the powdery piggyback fungus Asterophora lycoperdoides fruit on the caps of various brittlegill fungi Russula spp. Slime moulds, although not actually fungi themselves, are somewhat fungus-like when they are in the fruiting stage of their life cycle, and the sporocarps of one species Trichia decipiens are highly susceptible to fungal mould growing on them, accelerating their decomposition process.

In sharp contrast to decomposition in plants, fungi play a very limited role in the breakdown of dead animal matter, where the vast majority of the decomposers are other animals and bacteria. Animal decomposers include scavengers and carrion feeders, which consume parts of an animal carcass, using it as an energy source and converting it into the tissues of their own bodies and the dung they excrete. These range from foxes and badgers to birds such as the hooded crow Corvus corone cornix , and also include invertebrates such as carrion flies, blow-flies and various beetles.

The dung they produce in turn forms the food source for other organisms, particularly dung beetles and burying beetles, while some fungi, including the dung roundhead Stropharia semiglobata grow out of dung, helping to break it down. For animal carcasses that are not immediately consumed by large scavengers, ecologists identify five stages in the decomposition process.

The first of these is when the corpse is still fresh, and is typified by the arrival of carrion flies and blow-flies, which lay their eggs around the openings, such as the nose, mouth and ears, that allow easy access to the inside of the carcass. In the second stage, the action of bacteria inside the corpse causes putrefaction and swelling of the carcass due to the production of gases.

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This is anaerobic decomposition, or decay in the absence of air, and it is characterised by its bad smell, in contrast to the odourless nature of aerobic decomposition. The next stage commences when the skin of the corpse is ruptured, which allows the gases to escape and the carcass to deflate again. In this decay stage, the larvae or maggots of flies proliferate in large numbers and consume much of the soft tissues. Predators such as wasps, ants and beetles also arrive, to feed on the fly larvae.

In the following stage, only cartilage, skin and bones remain, and different groups of flies and beetles, plus their respective parasites, take over the decomposition process. Finally, only bones and hair remain, and they can persist for several years or more, although even they are consumed - for example, mice and voles will gnaw on old bones, to obtain the calcium they contain.

The progression through these stages depends to some extent on the time of year when death occurs, but typically it will take several months from beginning to end.

This is the slowest radioactive decay ever spotted

One example of a fungus that plays a role in the decomposition of animal matter is the scarlet caterpillar club fungus Cordyceps militaris. This species grows out of the living pupa or larva of a moth or butterfly, converting the body of its insect host as it dies into the hyphal structure of its fruiting body, which is club-shaped and orange in colour, with a pimply surface.

While decomposition and decay may appear to be unpleasant processes from our human perspective, they are vital in terms of the functioning of ecosystems. Just like compost in a garden, they provide essential nutrients for the growth of new organisms, and are a key aspect of the cyclical processes that maintain all life on Earth. A renewed appreciation of their importance will help humans to protect and sustain ecosystems, and may even provide inspiration for the establishment of an alternative to the unsustainable unlimited growth model that drives human culture today.

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Nature's unsung heroes of recycling A wide range of organisms takes part in the decomposition process, with most of them being relatively inconspicuous, unglamorous and, from a conventional human perspective, even undesirable. Decomposition in plants The primary decomposers of most dead plant material are fungi.


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