Exploring leaf litter

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September 21, 2021

Have you ever stopped to take a close look at the soil leaves that crunch under our feet as we walk outside? These leaves and loose soil that sit atop the ground is known as leaf litter and it is teeming with life. Entomologists developed a handy tool for separating small critters from soil and leaf litter in order to better observe them called a Berlese funnel. We can make our own DIY Berlese funnel at home with some simple household materials.


  • A clean, empty plastic bottle
  • Scissors
  • Paper towel
  • Magnifying glass
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Use your scissors to carefully cut a plastic bottle in half.

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Place a lightly damped paper towel in the bottom half, then turn the top half upside down and place it in the bottom half.

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Find some leaf litter you would like to explore!

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Put the leaf litter in the top part of your funnel and place it under a bright light for several hours. As the light dries out the leaf litter from the top any critters in there will crawl downwards, eventually falling into the bottom portion.

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Use your magnifying glass to examine the paper towel and see what you extracted from the leaf litter. You may come across ants, springtails, mites, beetles, millipedes, isopods, and more! A majority of what you find may be what are considered decomposers, which over time break down the leaf litter and recycle the nutrients they contain back into the soil. Decomposers are an essential part of a healthy ecosystem. Once you’ve finished observing your organisms return them and the leaf litter you collected to the same place you found them. Now that you’ve learned how to use a Berlese funnel to see what critters live in a sample of leaf litter we can use this method to explore more. Try collecting different leaf litter from different places and look for differences and similarities in what you find.

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