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Every week there are new marvels to look for in the outdoors, and Discover Nature highlights these attractions. The Missouri Department of Conservation’s Josh Hartwig brings us the stories of river otters, luna moths, red buds, and other actors as they take center stage in nature’s theater.You can hear Discover Nature, Mondays at 7:42 a.m. and 5:18 p.m.

Discover Nature: Natural Decomposers

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Missouri Department of Conservation
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Centipedes are natural recyclers.

Discover nature this week with Missouri's natural decomposers.

Recycling is critical in our “throwaway society” -- and the same is also true in nature. 

Living things play one of three roles in their environments:
•Green plants are producers, trapping the sun’s energy in food.
•Most animals are consumers (like water fleas, snails, tadpoles, and beavers found in pond ecosystems) meaning they eat the food provided by green plants.
•And the third role -- and one most overlooked -- is that of the decomposers, or “nature’s recycling centers.”

When plants and animals leave waste behind or die, bacteria, fungi and insects clean it up. These special organisms are called decomposers, which eat dead plants and animals. Their main role is to digest and break down dead organisms into tiny nutrients which are then returned to the soil.

Billions of these organisms live in the top layer of the soil. Fungi and bacteria begin to break down leaves even before they fall. After leaves reach the ground, other bacteria, and fungi feast on leaf tissue. Then earthworms and other invertebrates feed on bacteria and fungi.

Without them, dead plants and animals would pile up all around us because the chemicals needed for life would not be available. The storehouse of carbon dioxide, essential for the growth of plants, would be bankrupt.

So just like our recycling centers are essential to us, decomposers are essential to the earth.

More information about Missouri’s natural decomposers can be found online at mdc.mo.gov

Josh Hartwig is the host of Discover Nature and a media specialist for the Missouri Department of Conservation.
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