The new life of dead trees

Dani Tinker, with the National Wildlife Federation, on the wonderful weird things growing in that felled log out back.

Photo by National Wildlife Photo Contest entrant Philip Poinier.

I recently learned that dead trees provide vital habitat for more than 1,000 species of wildlife nationwide. The two most common types of dead wood you’ll find in your yard, along a trail or at a park are snags (upright) and logs (on the ground). Despite their name, dead trees are crawling with life. From the basking lizards on top to the beetles underneath, the list of wildlife that depend on logs feels endless. Here’s a sampling of what you may find if you explore a log more closely.

This fallen log was found behind NWF's headquarters building in Virginia. Photo by Avelino Maestas.
This fallen log was found behind NWF’s headquarters building in Virginia. Photo by Avelino Maestas.

Atop

Summer is a fantastic time to find lizards, turtles and other cold-blooded species basking in the sun. This behavior is primarily a matter of thermoregulation, but may also be a means to regulate Vitamin D. Ants, snails and other insects are often found crawling along a log, while chipmunks and squirrels may use it as a place to rest.

Broad-headed skink on top of a log by Dani Tinker.
Broad-headed skink on top of a log. Photo by Dani Tinker.

Inside

Logs provide great cover for small mammals like foxes, rabbits, bobcats, skunks and raccoons. Bobcats are known to nap inside logs, while foxes may use it as a place to build their den. The inside of a log also provides protection from some predators. The picture below is of a red-tail hawk attempting to get a squirrel, who cleverly took refuge inside a log.

Red-tail hawk trying to get a squirrel out of a knot hole in a log, where it had taken refuge. Photo by Cara Litberg.
Red-tail hawk trying to get a squirrel out of a knot hole in a log, where it had taken refuge. Photo by National Wildlife Photo Contest entrant Cara Litberg.

Under

A nature walk rarely feels complete without flipping at least one log. The treasures beneath a log may include beetles, worms, spiders, salamanders, newts or centipedes. What you find on your flipping adventure will depend on the time of year, weather, moisture, and a number of other factors, but it’s all worth it. As you flip, roll the log back toward you, using it as a barrier and giving critters a chance to get away.

This marbled salamander was found by photographer Nicholas Kiriazis after flipping a log in Illinois.
This marbled salamander was found by National Wildlife Photo Contest entrant Nicholas Kiriazis after flipping a log in Illinois.

Beside

Snakes will often use the space next to a log to rest or look for food. Since logs are crawling with life (prey to a snake), it’s a good place to find a meal. They might also curl up against or inside a log to rest and stay hidden from predators. Egg-laying snake species may deposit their clutches in or under a logs to keep them protected.

Danielle Brigida found this snake next to a log while hiking in West Virginia.
Danielle Brigida found this snake next to a log while hiking in West Virginia.

Attached To

Moss, fungi and lichen are a few special organisms that can be found growing on logs. The simple structure of mosses (a type of bryophyte) allow them to grow where other plants may not be able. Dead wood is a place where many species of lichen and fungi thrive as well.

Appreciate Logs

Whether you explore logs along your next nature walk. or decide to keep one in your backyard, logs need some appreciation. They provide both cover and a place for wildlife to raise their young. It’s also a step toward qualifying your yard as an official Certified Wildlife Habitat.

Understandably, not everyone wants or has space for dead wood in their yard. You can visit a local nature site and investigate the wildlife that depend on logs near you. Enter your zip code into Nature Find to get a list of parks and trails nearby.

What have you observed on, under or near a dead tree?

This article was originally published by The National Wildlife Federation.

Published 9:41 am Fri, Jul 25, 2014

About the Author

Dani Tinker is the Community Manager with the National Wildlife Federation, implementing social media campaigns to build community and deeper relationships with constituents. She holds a Master of Education in Environmental Education from Concordia University in Portland, where she was born and raised. Dani is a naturalist-in-training encouraging youth to get outdoors, adults to keep their youth and everyone to play in the mud. She can be found sharing her passion on Twitter as @d_tinker.

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