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Litter Biology

In the summer of 2003


Forty meters below the high canopy of the forest on Barro Colorado Island Panama, amidst the fallen leaves and branches, lies the brown food web. Unlike the monkeys and grasshoppers in the treetops that devour green leaves, the mites and springtails that number in the thousands in a m2 of litter consume the fungi and bacteria that decompose the forest litter. The vast majority of the species in these webs are unknown to science. Intriguingly, patches of litter vary a hundred-fold in the number of tiny invertebrates that make up these webs. Thus tropical brown food webs are one of ecology’s last frontiers. To explore these frontiers, we will collect litter and use simple experiments to test the following hypotheses:


   1) that the control of the biomass of trophic levels (e.g., fungi, microbivores, microbivore predators, predators of those predators) in a litter patch varies with the quantity and chemical makeup of the litter;


   2) that this chemical makeup varies predictably between the trees that generate the litter and the fungi that decompose it; and


   3) that the fungal and microbivore defenses against their predators varies with their vulnerability and the availability of chemicals to build those defenses.


More information on our current NSF-funded project.

Opportunities for Research
in our 2003 Field Season


In our 2003 Field Season we are taking a three-pronged approach to the regulation of litter taxa, asking:

  How do army ants open up opportunities in the litter by killing some of its inhabitants?

  How does the chemical patchwork created by soils, trees, and monkey pee create opportunities for the species that inhabit the litter?

  How do species adapt to life in the litter?


If you are interested in joining us, check our our Opportunities page.

Litter biology resources


One of the handy things about the brown food web is that it is literally underfoot and accessible with some very simple tools. The AntLab, in conjunction with the JASON project, is working to make litter food webs more accessible to science students from a variety of backgrounds.


        How to build and sample litter critters with a simple berlese funnell.


        Guide to common litter critters, plus links to more elaborate identification guides.


Author: Mike Kaspari
Last Updated: 31Dec2002

This page was built with support from the National Science Foundation DEB-9524004.

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