The Upland Tropical Rain Forest exhibit is temporarily closed through Fall 2022.

Leave the Leaves

Bacteria and beetles, snails and salamanders, moths and mice—these are just a few of the organisms that rely on the leaves, twigs and other material underfoot in the fall.

  • Conservation

Leaf litter—the fallen leaves, twigs and pieces of bark that carpet the ground, particularly in autumn—is an important microhabitat. This is as true in your yard or neighborhood green space as it is deep in the forest.

Microhabitats are small-scale ecosystems. Some organisms spend their entire lives in leaf litter, while others can only be found there during certain points in their life cycles.

  • Microscopic organisms like fungi and bacteria as well as small invertebrates and insects like worms, slugs, snails, centipedes, spiders and beetles help break down fallen leaves and other organic material and speed decomposition.
  • Salamanders, toads and other small amphibians rely on the shelter and moisture provided by leaf litter; they also feed on the invertebrates and insects found there. In winter, wood frogs shelter in fallen leaves to survive the cold.
a dark leopard frog hides in fallen leaves
Leopard frogs are one of the species in the Chesapeake Bay watershed that rely on leaf litter for protection.
  • Luna moths and other butterfly and moth species overwinter in leaf litter, as do some bees. These species are important pollinators. Butterfly and moth caterpillars are also an important food source for birds.
  • Small mammals like mice, squirrels and chipmunks use fallen leaves as nesting material, insulating their burrows before they hibernate in winter.

Beyond leaf litter’s benefits for wildlife, fallen leaves assist gardeners by inhibiting weeds, retaining moisture and enriching the soil. At the same time, practices like using gas-powered leaf blowers or bagging leaves and sending them to a landfill contribute to climate change by releasing carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere.

Leaving fallen leaves on the ground is a great way to benefit wildlife in your yard, community green space or grounds of your school or place of worship. It can even be a first step in creating a certified wildlife habitat, which is as simple as providing food, water, cover and places to raise young, and practicing sustainable gardening techniques.

Learn more about the National Aquarium’s partnership with the National Wildlife Federation’s Garden for Wildlife program and how to turn an outdoor space into a certified wildlife habitat.

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