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World Soil Day Dec 5: The hidden creatures in our soils

Posted 5 December 2014

Fran Sconce

Fran Sconce

To mark World Soil Day on Friday December 5, Harper Adams University postgraduate researcher Fran Sconce explains why soils are important and in particular, the role of soil biodiversity.

“You might think that only earthworms live in soil, but there is a whole community of organisms that live in this habitat. 

The term ‘soil biodiversity’ describes everything from microscopic bacteria and fungi, to tiny insects and mites, and even small mammals such as moles. The diversity of different species can be breath-taking; estimates suggest that of all living organisms in the world, a quarter to a third live in soil. 

So why is soil important? Soils are often described as underpinning our environment.  The functioning of most terrestrial ecosystems relies on the processes carried out in soil, such as nutrient and water cycling. 

Until fairly recently, research in to how soil biodiversity relates to these processes was rather neglected, being regarded as ‘out of sight and out of mind’, but now, studies are showing the great importance of soil organisms for ecosystem function. 

In particular, the linkages between aboveground organisms such as plants and the herbivores feeding on their leaves, and belowground organisms such as those feeding on plant roots or influencing the root environment, have been found to have much stronger relationships than previously thought.

With global climate change and the need to feed a growing population, knowledge of how to manage soils sustainably to conserve and enhance these functions is increasingly important. A recent review paper in the journal Nature highlights the challenge to integrate knowledge about soil biodiversity into future climate mitigation and land management strategies.

Personally, I am interested in a group of soil organisms called springtails, which are closely related to insects; most are a couple of millimetres long and live on the surface and lower layers of soil. 

Springtails are detritivores, eating soil organic matter such as dead plants and fungi growing on them.  Through this, springtails can increase rates of decomposition and nutrient cycling and are therefore beneficial for soils.

I am interested in how springtails are influenced by agriculture - does the abundance of springtails, that is how many there are, and the number of different species or types of springtails change with different agricultural techniques, such as different cultivation techniques? 

Are there particular species of springtails that can cope with high intensity agricultural systems which could be of use for soil management in the future? These are all questions that I am trying to answer during my PhD project at Harper Adams University.

From December 2-5 I am attending the GSBI’s first Global Soil Biodiversity Conference in Dijon, France: ‘Assessing soil biodiversity and its role for ecosystem services’.

The GSBI (Global Soil Biodiversity Initiative) is an international platform for researchers, policy makers and practitioners of soil biodiversity management. I will be presenting one part of my PhD project, which in collaboration with Emily Smith, fellow Postgraduate Researcher and now Lecturer at Harper Adams.

This work looks at the responses of springtails to different agricultural traffic and tillage regimes.  I am looking forward to discussing this work and meeting other soil biodiversity enthusiasts!”

To learn more about Harper Adams' soil-themed research, visit the Soil and Water Management page.

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