Decomposing Ecosystem and Carbon PTOE

Can you name the element that is most important to sustaining life? Did you answer carbon or oxygen? Most people answer oxygen. Yes, many living things depend on oxygen to survive, but, carbon is in fact, more fundamental to the sustenance of life. Actually carbon IS life, since every living thing contains carbon, the term organic refers to certain varieties of carbon present in all life-forms.

We are having a blast learning about carbon, it’s an element that we can really connect with since there is so much of it in our natural world around us! This week we focused on my favorite subject involving carbon….decomposition (of plants, it’s hard for me to stomach animal decomposition, if interested google “decomposition” and you will get all kinds of crazy stuff involving pigs). Carbon dioxide is released into the air when cellular respiration takes place through the action of decomposers (bacteria and fungi). Detritivores (woodlice, worms, millipedes, slugs and other little creatures that you’ll find munching on dead trees and leaf litter) are often referred to as decomposers because they help with the break down. The detritivores and other living animals’ waste products are eaten by the bacteria and fungi, which in turn releases carbon dioxide.

Hunting for Decomposing Matter

Take a hike in the woods and look for decomposing matter and the life forms that help in the decomposing process.

Stop and investigate a decomposing log….look for those little creatures (the detritivores) that help with the breakdown of the log. A whole amazing micro-community of creatures live right there. These creatures are helping with the chemical breakdown of the log, and leave waste products that put carbon dioxide in the air! How many living creatures can you find? Here is what we found on our decomposing adventure. A beetle working very hard and munching away…..

A very chubby slug living in the leaves under the log (leaf rot is another great place to learn about decomposition).


Woodlice love the moist envrionment of decomposing leaves and trees. Did you know that woodlice have gills?

Earthworms help break down all the organic matter that falls onto the forest floor.

A spider found a cozy spot to spin a web and help with the break down of the log.
Photo taken by my sister Robin.

A very pretty decomposing tree with holes and trails left by worms and beetles. This would make great rubbings to place in a nature journal. Don’t forget those nature journals whenever you visit the woods, nature journals are the ideal place to record your findings.

Speaking of waste products, here is some scat left behind from a deer. As the bacteria causes the waste to decompose, carbon dioxide is released into the air.
Don’t forget those decomposing animals. Fauna found part of a raccoon jaw, the tail was close by, but I will spare you that photo.

Here, we have the master decomposers, the primary decomposers, members of the bacteria and fungi families. They extract the energy contained in the chemical bonds of the decomposing organic matter and realease carbon dioxide into the air.



Be sure to make time to climb and balance on these carbon dioxide contributors!

Set up a Decomposing Ecosystem

The ecosystems where heat and moisture are generated are the best at producing carbon dioxide through decomposition. The decomposing process in dry, cold climates are much slower. You can easily make a warm and moist decomposing ecosystem in your own home to observe over time. This is a great way to see first hand how the decomposition process works.

For this ecosystem we used an old fish tank. We layered (in order) rocks, sand, charcoal, soil from the yard, and leaf litter into the tank. Then we added a wet decomposing log, moss, fungi, pinecones and whatever else the little ladies wanted to contribute to our decomposing ecosystem. Please don’t collect too much and you must treat this ecosystem like a living breathing pet, many little creatures will be added to this ecosystem without their permission or your knowledge even. You must be sure to keep the ecosystem moist, the little critters will contribute to the decomposition and multiply if you’re taking good care of them, they will die if you don’t. (Ha, does the drama get my point across)?

Add a few splashes of water, make sure your ecosystem is moist, but not too wet, you don’t want to see standing water at the bottom of the tank.

I added some plastic wrap to the top of our decomposing ecosystem to hold in the humidity and moisture. Place it in a window with indirect sunlight or you can keep it outside, but don’t forget about it. Our ecosystem gets some morning sun and look what we woke up to….probably a tad too much sun, only one side of the terrarium shoould have this much condensation! We ended up taking it off the front porch and bringing it inside, the condensation quickly decreased.

Araina admiring our new ecosystem this morning! She saw many little detritivores working about- millipedes, woodlice, beetles and slugs.


I recommend taking a lot of photos of the decomposing ecosystem over time and note how it changes.

I don’t think we are done with carbon yet, we are having way too much fun and learning so much! Want more carbon fun? Try the moss terarrium. More PTOE fun? Try the riddles, sulphur and gold activities.

21 Comments

  • Shona Leah
    April 1, 2009 - 8:02 pm | Permalink

    what a fun hike full of fun critters!! and a wonderful post, you are so full of great ideas!

  • sarah in the woods
    March 30, 2009 - 4:56 pm | Permalink

    That is a wonderful idea. I’d love to do this.

  • jane
    March 30, 2009 - 1:58 pm | Permalink

    I wish I had half your energy! Great job!

  • sunnymama
    March 30, 2009 - 1:17 pm | Permalink

    Also, I love the picture of the decomposing tree, how beautiful!

  • sunnymama
    March 30, 2009 - 1:15 pm | Permalink

    This is such a fascinating post! A really interesting subject and you have gone in to so many wonderful details. Thanks!

  • Lisa
    March 30, 2009 - 10:42 am | Permalink

    Hmmm, I noticed the small comments last night and thought I fixed them…..I don’t see any right now. If anyone else sees this problem please let me know.

  • Annie
    March 30, 2009 - 10:17 am | Permalink

    This is really fun and I’m going to bookmark the post for this topic again. We’ve been talking about Carbon since your moss terrarium ( http://5orangepotatoes.blogspot.com/2009/03/moss-terrariums-and-carbon-cycle-ptoe.html ). I’ve been really enjoying the direction in learning you often sparked in us.

    Some of your comments for the photos though went super super super small. Can you make them bigger?

  • Toni
    March 30, 2009 - 9:17 am | Permalink

    what an amaizng project love the decomposting system, you built that is really neat,and you guys have the most amazing photos, I love all your wonderful finds:-)The wood lice is so cool, never actually have seen one before.

  • Sam
    March 30, 2009 - 8:47 am | Permalink

    Wow, what an awesome post. I can just smell the wonderful moist earth from those luscious pictures. Your girls are SO lucky to have a mom so passionate about life! It surely will rub off on them :) There is no nature deficit disorder for those young ladies, what a wonderfully healthy life.

  • Tara
    March 30, 2009 - 7:59 am | Permalink

    Slugs are Owen’s all time favorite slimy critter… he used to collect them by the buckets.

    Again – hugely interesting and informative post. Thank you for sharing it!

    I’m fetching the goodies for a terrarium today!

  • julie
    March 30, 2009 - 7:25 am | Permalink

    That’s a great idea! We’ve been seeing terrariums everywhere these days, too, and we have GOT to make some soon.

    If the girls haven’t already dug up all the moss in the yard by now, at least…

  • dongdong
    March 30, 2009 - 6:22 am | Permalink

    That sounds so fun. The little ladies probably don’t even realize they are learning a whole bunch.

    Thanks for sharing. I love to watch the little animals too, the slug, the earthworm, the spider web, etc. My kids not so much. Well, they will look it but they will not touch it.

  • Ruth
    March 29, 2009 - 8:19 pm | Permalink

    What a super great and inspirational blog this is!! Thank you so much. (^_^)

  • The Magic Onions
    March 29, 2009 - 8:14 pm | Permalink

    Please, Lisa, can we all come and live with you? Your posts are amazing!

  • Lisa
    March 29, 2009 - 8:12 pm | Permalink

    Anet, sure a smaller scale ecosystem would work.

  • Anet
    March 29, 2009 - 7:56 pm | Permalink

    We really appreciate all the hard work you’ve put in sharing the PTOE with us!
    This is really great. We will go on a decomposers hike to look for them and photograph them this week.
    Do you think a smaller scale decomposing ecosystem would work?

  • Melissa
    March 29, 2009 - 7:47 pm | Permalink

    Fascinating stuff. Some of it gross, but still fascinating.

  • Stephanie
    March 29, 2009 - 7:45 pm | Permalink

    We aren’t studying carbon (per se :) ) yet, but when we do, I’ll be coming to you!! :)
    You’ve provided so much info and fun, Lisa.
    Thanks sooo much!!

  • Dawn
    March 29, 2009 - 6:52 pm | Permalink

    The miniature ecosystem sounds like such a fun project, full of so many learning opportunities. I’m amazed at all your kids are learning!

  • LadySilverOak
    March 29, 2009 - 5:49 pm | Permalink

    AWESOME AWESOME AWESOME post. Being this is my first year homeschooling I am truly at a lost of what to do everyday..this is inspirational!!!

  • Lisa
    March 29, 2009 - 5:16 pm | Permalink

    Shoo, I’m glad that post is over and done! ;)

  • Comments are closed.