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Using Art to enliven research on deadwood

Updated: Nov 10, 2022

What exactly is deadwood?

Deadwood is a tree, or part of a tree that has died and is in a stage of decay. Interestingly, aside from this definition, the term deadwood is used in connection with humans to mean: “nothing much is going on.” It also can have negative connotations. For example, for many, fallen branches, rotting stumps, and dead trees are seen as a sign of a woodland being poorly managed, unhealthy, or even dangerous. In fact, traditionally, woodland was kept “clean” by removing deadwood to prevent the transfer of disease and pests. Now, deadwood is increasingly recognized amongst the scientific community as an essential part of the forest ecosystem.

Researchers at the University of Reading and Forest Research, including Dr. Vicky Shannon, Professor Joanna Clark, Professor Liz Shaw, Dr. Elena Vanguelova, and James Morison are working together in raising awareness and promoting good practices in deadwood management.

Visualizing research on deadwood using Art

Deadwood continues to receive little attention and is one of the most threatened habitats in forests. Thus, researchers have worked together in collaboration with environmental scientist and artist, Nerea Ferrando, to help raise awareness and dispel myths.

Nerea is a final year PhD student in the Environmental Science department at the University of Reading and has a BA in Fine Arts from the Polytechnic University in Valencia, Spain.

Nerea has created a series of scientific illustrations to help convey four key messages:

1. Deadwood comes in different shapes and sizes

2. Deadwood provides a home for a wide array of wildlife

3. Dead trees play an under-appreciated role in the carbon cycle

4. The removal of decaying wood and dead trees threatens forests health

These scientific illustrations help raise awareness about deadwood. Unlike scientific visuals such as graphs, tables and charts, they help convey concepts that are complex or less appealing to a broader public.

Deadwood diversity

While the first image of deadwood might be a fallen tree, there are in fact many types of deadwood. Nerea illustrates the different stages of tree decay (Stage 1-9) as a tree ages and deteriorates, until it becomes a stump. This dieback occurs naturally in veteran trees, starting with the upper parts of the tree shedding small branches until the crown is reduced. This is known as natural retrenchment.

At later stages, the entirety of the crown is reduced in height and extent and the branches fall off. This is followed by stem breakage and loss of bark.

The illustration above shows the final stages of the decay process of a log rotting. Progressively it loses its branches and bark, until eventually the course woody debris is broken down to become soil (Class 1-5). This decomposition process can take many years, or even centuries!

Deadwood is a home

When a tree dies, it’s not the end of the story! All forms of deadwood can provide a home for a diversity of species. This is because different tree species, decaying at multiple rates and stages, at various locations and climates, enables thousands of living things to take advantage of the innumerable microhabitats created of diverse shapes and sizes.In fact, a new WWF report "Deadwood - Living Forests" reveals that a third of wildlife species in forests rely on dead or dying trees for their survival. Many of these species are considered rare or threatened because they have very specialized nichesand relationships.

In the illustration below, Nerea depicts four types of deadwood and forest-dwelling species:

  1. A windthrown tree

  2. A standing dead tree, also known as snug

  3. A stump

  4. A rotting log

You can find several species using these microhabitats for food, nesting, shelter, and even larval development. From bigger animals like woodpeckers, wood mice, and hedgehogs; to smaller creatures like millipedes and wood lice; to other living things, such as various types of fungi, lichens, and moss living in the flaking bark and crevices.

Carbon storage in deadwood

Dead trees play an under-appreciated role in climate change!

Trees have been referred to as “climate change, carbon storage heroes.” During photosynthesis, trees pull out carbon dioxide from the air, bind it up in sugars and store it in leaves, trunks, branches and roots. In the process they also release oxygen that we need to survive.

As a tree grows, it is able to lock away more and more carbon. However, while trees mostly store carbon, when some or all parts of a tree die and decompose, they release part of this carbon back to the atmosphere. But, little is known about the contribution of this deadwood to the global carbon cycle.

This scientific illustration was created for a graphical abstract to be published in the European Journal of Forest Research in 2022: “The contribution of deadwood to soil carbon dynamics in contrasting temperate forest ecosystems.” The purpose was to help illustrate the research findings from the study sites for scientific researcher, Dr.Vicky Shannon.

On the left, a natural temperate forest environment is depicted vs on the right, a heavily managed woodland were deadwood and leaf litter were cleared. The scientific findings demonstrated that not removing leaf and course woody debris significantly increased the amount of dissolved organic carbon (DOC) input to the soil. This was illustrated with a larger DOC arrow, and top soil layer.

In other words, by letting the deadwood lie on the forest floor, carbon can be stored for many more years in the dying wood and also a large part locked in the soil as it decays!

Threats to deadwood

Sadly, despite its enormous ecological significance for forest functioning and its role in the global carbon cycle, deadwood remains one of the most threatened habitats in managed forests.

The amount, quality, and diversity of deadwood is heavily reduced by land managers to:

1) Control pests and diseases eg. bark beetles (shown in the illustration below)

2) Make sites accessible or aesthetically pleasing

Of course, there are some dead trees that need to be removed because they pose a threat to people and property, such as dead trees near buildings, roads, and trails. However, its removal is mainly due to a lack of recognition of its importance. Increasingly, woodland managers must weigh up the safety risks against the environmental benefits of letting deadwood lie on the forest floor.

In the illustration below, we see a comparison between a natural woodland with restricted public access (left), a heavily managed woodland (right) and on the bottom, a middle-ground: a responsibly managed forest, were the value of deadwood is not overlooked.

To minimize forest degradation in the future, deadwood in forests needs to be maintained and restored, but also, there needs to be an increased focus in environmental education programs that emphasize the critical value of deadwood to policy makers, land managers, scientists, and the general public.


This artwork was funded by the University of Reading and Forest Research.

The science-art collaboration was presented at EGU22, the 24thEGU General Assembly, held 23-27 May, 2022 in Vienna, Austria and Online.

Publication: Online at:

Using art to enliven research on deadwood

Ferrando Jorge, Nerea; Shannon, Vicky; Clark, Joanna; Shaw, Liz ; Vanguelova, Elena; Morison, James

Often scientists think of creating visuals like graphs, tables, and charts to better convey their research or make it more appealing to a broader public. However, some data or scientific concepts are complex and difficult to grasp. Instead, art is a universal language. This has led to a tremendous growth in data visualisation using art in the last decade.At the University of Reading, a team of scientists are collaborating with environmental scientist and visual artist, Nerea Ferrando, to enliven the important story of deadwood for forest functioning. Deadwood refers to trees, or parts of a tree, that are dying or have died. Research in this field is increasingly showing that deadwood stabilises forests, sustains productivity, stores carbon, and provides food and a home for thousands of species, including invertebrates, fungi, as well as birds and mammals. Yet, despite its enormous ecological significance, deadwood remains one of the most threatened habitats in managed forests. Its amount, quality, and diversity is usually heavily reduced by forestry as a common strategy to control pests or make sites accessible.The artist is creating a series of works to bring to light this less visible part of the forest and help communicate specific aspects of the research findings, such as its unrecognized role in the carbon cycle, the impact of deadwood on biodiversity, or exposing contradictory views on best management practices.Ultimately, the science-artwork seeks to promote consciousness and awareness of the value of deadwood and the benefits it provides. Raising awareness is essential because, to date, deadwood continues to receive little attention and the adoption of management strategies that create or maintain a variety of deadwood are needed to protect forest health.

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