The Life in Dead Trees

The teeming world inside snags, ‘wolves’ and nurse logs.

  • Snags
    “Snag” is the traditional forestry word for a standing dead, or partially dead, tree. Recently, though, biologists have adopted a more descriptive and deserving term: wildlife tree.
    Photo by Mark Moffett/Minden Pictures
  • A red squirrel nurses her babies in the comfort of a snag hole. Cavity-raised squirrels are nearly twice as likely to survive as those raised in treetop nests.
    Photo by Sumio Harada/Minden Pictures
  • Tree roots grow around a fallen tree, or nurse log, in Olympic National Forest, in Washington state.
    Photo by Dave Schiefelbein
  • Numerous fauna depend on parts of a snag, better termed "wildlife tree," from the treetop to the roots.
    Illustration by Tina B. Isom
  • For raccoons, such as these in the Gallatin National Forest in Montana, a good snag is hole heaven.
    Photo by Michael Habicht

  • Snags

Dead Trees

Young autumn’s shorter days and colder nights soon will do their work shutting down the chlorophyll factories in the woody landscape, and the skies will rain bright leaves. We humans will look up and watch admiringly even as we stand in our yards holding rakes in blistered hands, ever more leafy labor drifting to our feet.

Once shed of summer’s green and autumn’s multicolor, trees seem to us somber and lifeless. Nothing could be further from the truth — a leafless tree in fall and winter is near to popping with life, merely holding its vegetative breath. Nestled within its buds are thousands of miniature, fully formed infant leaves — all the foliage the tree will, at winter’s end, finally exhale in the great green gush we call spring.

That we see no life when we see no leaves is, in other words, only human foible. No tree, in fact, ever is lifeless — not even when the tree is long dead.

Life After Death

“Snag” is the traditional forestry word for a standing dead, or partially dead, tree. Recently, though, biologists have adopted a more descriptive and deserving term: wildlife tree.

With the exception of living plants, probably no other single component of the woodland environment supports more animal life. In North America, about 85 species of birds, at least 50 mammal species, and roughly a dozen reptiles and amphibians rely on snags for shelter, food, mating, resting, nesting and other critical functions. In addition, dozens of invertebrates — millipedes, beetles, spiders, worms, ants and more — also call snags “home” (or at least “snack bar”). In all, says the U.S. Forest Service, some 1,200 forms of fauna rely on dead, dying or rotted-hollow trees.

So much for the “dead wood” notion.

2/21/2015 5:42:05 AM

This is interesting, we recently noticed on some of our dead conifer trees that the bark has been stripped. We were wondering if it to do with a beetle, but looking closer we can see teeth marks. Never had it before so can anyone answer 'why now'

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