BABES IN THE WOODS
While most people are engaged in raking leaves, or swearing at them, certain ecologists are busy studying them. Singular though this might seem, it makes sense: in recent years there has been increasing recognition of the critical importance of dead leaves; in fact, the number and size of fishes in many waters may well depend on the leaf fall.
For the last three winters, Dr. Robert Goodland of the New York Botanical Garden has been doing "nutrient profiles" on leaves from 71 species of trees and shrubs on the grounds of the Carey Arboretum in Millbrook, N.Y. He has found that leaves from white ash and flowering dogwood are rich in calcium, and those from the American and slippery elms high in potassium. He has also discovered that hickory and butternut leaves accumulate extraordinarily high amounts of aluminum, a metal toxic to most other trees.
A forest drops about 3,000 pounds of leaves per acre, and on the ground they are consumed by bacteria, fungi, earthworms and insects. Another ecologist, Dr. Dominick J. Pirone of Manhattan College, is particularly interested in what goes on inside a leaf. "It's a whole world of its own for leaf miners," says Pirone, "mainly the larvae of microlepidoptera, tiny moths with a wingspan down to less than a tenth of an inch, that are among the most beautiful creatures on earth." (In Mexico, the caterpillar of the micro-moth Carpocapsa saltitans lives in the seedpods of milkweed. If the pod on the ground is in a bad position, where, say, there is too much sunlight, the caterpillar flexes its muscles to make the pod shift to a more favorable site. Thus the "Mexican jumping bean.")
In lakes and streams, dead leaves serve as a basic source of food for aquatic organisms. Some larvae of caddis flies, an important food for trout, not only eat leaves, but also use them to construct houses in which they live underwater. Many stone flies, another important food for trout, prefer to eat leaves that drop in the stream rather than submerged plants. Indeed, different species of stone flies have marked preferences.
"Nature exists by recycling every molecule," Pirone says. "When most people think of science, they think of spaceships. Instead, they should think about the leaves on the trees and on the ground. We're just babes in the woods when it comes to understanding the essential details of basic ecological processes."
PUN MY NAME
Richard Lederer, an English master at St. Paul's School in Concord, N.H., has spent the past year researching writers of literature and the sports their names suggest. The list reaches from antiquity to the present. For example, bowling includes Pindar, Edwin Markham, Mickey Spillane and Malcolm X. Ready for more? O.K.
Tennis: Miguel Cervantes, Richard Lovelace, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, Robert W. Service, Ivy Compton Burnett, Tennessee Williams and Kurt Vonnegut.
Track: Jonathan Swift, John Bunyan, John Crowe Ransom and Howard Fast.