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How fungi, bacteria and invertebrates are the parks’ secret service.

How fungi, bacteria and invertebrates are the parks' secret service.

Today’s blog was written by Jessica Stillman, School Outreach Coordinator at Bronte Creek Provincial Park.

When you visit a provincial park, you will likely interact with staff from various departments.

From the gate staff who greet you to the maintenance team who keep the facility clean, the park runs smoothly because everyone has a role to play in keeping the machine operational.

But there is a team that works so quietly that many of us don’t realize that we witness their efforts every day.

That team is the Ontario Parks FBI unit, also known as fungi, bacteria and invertebrates.

Meet the FBI

Collectively, this special group is called “decomposers.”

Decomposing trunk with mushrooms, lichen and moss

They work together to break down things like leaves, branches, and other debris as they feed.

This incredibly important and secretive team plays an important role in keeping our parks and natural spaces clean.

Let’s learn more about the unique abilities and secret powers of each member.

Mushrooms: sometimes showy, usually secretive.

As part of our Secret Service, mushrooms do a great job of hiding in plain sight. That is until, of course, they start growing mushrooms.

These colorful reproductive structures reveal a fungus’s location, but not its secret tool for getting rid of unwanted materials. You see, it’s the mycelium (plural: mycelium) of a fungus that is doing the hard work of clearing the forest.

Mycelia are networks of small filaments (hyphae) that grow in or around a fungus’s food source. They secrete enzymes that break down food externally and then the mycelia can absorb these digested nutrients.

Fungi break down materials that many other living things cannot break down. This makes them an integral part of the FBI.

Bacteria: small but powerful

Bacteria are even more secretive than fungi. Their small size makes them impossible to see without the proper tool: a microscope.

Although we cannot see the members of this team, we know that their work is underway in all of our parks.

Sometimes, bacteria will make their presence evident to us. This is a flow of slime, a gummy substance caused by bacteria that feed on the sap of a wounded tree.

While bacteria break down organic matter similarly to fungi, they have an additional tool up their sleeve. Some bacteria can continue to decompose the material under anaerobic conditions.

What are anaerobic conditions, you ask? If fungi and other organisms consume underground oxygen, their decomposition activity stops.

Anaerobic conditions are those where there is no oxygen. Some bacteria can live in these conditions and continue their work of recycling materials.

Invertebrates: those that make things work

Invertebrates such as ants, termites, nematodes, millipedes, and beetles are the most obvious division of the FBI team.

American carrion beetles

Decomposer invertebrates don’t worry about staying hidden; They are proud of the work they do.

These small but powerful decomposers do the heavy lifting at the beginning of the decomposition process. They begin by dividing the material into smaller, more manageable pieces for the rest of the team to work with.

Even more importantly, invertebrates help aerate the soil. While fungi and bacteria do most of the legwork by taking those fragmented pieces and breaking them down into nutrients, they often need oxygen.

Ants are underestimated as ecosystem decomposers. They play an important role in cleaning both plant and animal waste.

By aerating the soil, invertebrates help their companions complete the job at hand.

The FBI motto: “A clean park is a beautiful park!”

By helping organic materials break down, decomposers recycle nutrients back into the soil. This enriches it, helping new plants grow and old ones staying alive.

Nutrients such as nitrogen, calcium and phosphorus are crucial for plant growth. Without the FBI team, these nutrients would remain trapped in dead soil matter.

Think about what makes your favorite park beautiful.

Is it a majestic white pine tree stretching towards the sky? A blanket of white Trilliums covering the forest floor? The sweet aroma of a sassafras tree at the edge of a path?

None of this would be possible without the FBI unit recycling nutrients from dead organic matter in the soil.

Our parks are beautiful because of fungi, bacteria, and invertebrates, and they don’t even take credit for it.

Give the decomposers their due

Think about the hard work our FBI team does to keep our parks clean and beautiful for us.

Next time you visit a provincial park, do your part to become an honorary member:

  • Do not throw trash. The FBI team works with organic matter, not plastic!
  • Do not pick mushrooms, as this is how fungi reproduce.
  • Leave the litter alone. Our FBI team is hard at work inside that leaf litter, and raking or burning it will disrupt their work!
  • Dish soap and shampoo don’t help our FBI team clean. Remember to dispose of gray water from washing dishes and showering in designated places.
  • We can’t let this Secret Service remain a secret! Its importance for our parks must be made known.

    Help us spread the word about this division of Ontario Parks and do your part to help the FBI team.

    Even if you don’t see them, our FBI team greets you!

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