Scientists measure the ecological benefits of death, decomposition

"Decomposer communities are critical, yet there's no standard framework to conceptualize their complex and dynamic interactions," Eric Benbow said.

By Brooks Hays
Scientists measure the ecological benefits of death, decomposition
Death and decomposition help recycle nutrients vital to Earth's ecosystems. Photo by MSU

Sept. 12 (UPI) -- Scientists have developed a better way to study the necrobiome, the collections of big and small organisms that help plants and animals decay.

Death and decomposition are vital to ecological health. In order to better understand and measure the benefits provided by the niece-biome, scientists at Michigan State University compiled a survey of decomposition processes.


"Decomposer communities are critical, yet there's no standard framework to conceptualize their complex and dynamic interactions across both plant and animal necromass, which limits our comprehensive understanding of decomposition," Eric Benbow, MSU forensic entomologist and microbial ecologist, said in a news release. "Our findings also have implications for defining and testing paradigms related to nutrient recycling, gene flow, population dynamics and other ecosystem processes at the frontier of ecological research."

The new survey offers similarities and differences between plant and animal decomposers across a variety of ecosystems.

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"We outline the biotic structure and ecological functions of the necrobiome, along with how the necrobiome fits into a broader landscape and ecosystem context," researchers wrote in their new paper, published this week in the journal Ecological Monographs.

In 2016, hundreds of reindeer were killed suddenly in Norway's Hardangervidda National Park by an intense electrical storm. Last month, researchers published a study in the journal Biology Letters, detailing the ecological transformation triggered by the decomposing corpses.


Scavengers, including foxes and birds, were attracted from miles around. Ravens and other birds littered the ground with seed-filled feces. Decomposing reindeer served as fertilizer for new plants, including crowberry bushes. As the new bushes mature, they're likely to attract animals that feed on the berries.

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The death of several hundred reindeer triggered a rapid increase in plant and animal diversity on the spartan tundra in a short amount of time.

"From death comes life," study author Sam Steyaert, a researcher at the University of South-Eastern Norway and the Norwegian University of Life Sciences, told the New York Times.

Researchers at Michigan State believe their latest work will help scientists better understand the decomposition dynamics at play on the Norwegian tundra, and across a variety of other landscapes.

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By changing the perception of decomposition, scientists hope to inspire new areas of research and new technologies.

"Our research and this study establish a common language and conceptual tools that can lead to new product discovery," Benbow said.

Researchers have already found ways to turn the mash left over from distilleries to grow insects that can be turned into animal feed.

"We're eliminating organic matter and turning it into a value-added product that can add to the world-food cycle," Benbow said. "Understanding the species and the mechanisms, which are essentially recycled, can contribute to establishing food security."


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