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'Minibeasts' rule the world, it seems

By Dave Armstrong - 18 Oct 2011 22:12:0 GMT
'Minibeasts' rule the world, it seems

em>Transparent nematode (roundworm) via Shutterstock

We look down on it. We trample all over it. We very rarely give it a thought, but, "most of

Earth's biodiversity is found in soil," NSF program director Matt Kane states! The NSF (National Science Foundation) in the US are aided and abetted in this study by Colorado State University, riding to the rescue of the unloved soil denizens. In the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Tiehang Wu and Jim Garey at the University of South Florida, Diana Wall at Colorado State University, Ed Ayres now at Neon Inc. in Colorado, and Richard Bardgett at the University of Lancaster in the United Kingdom provide us with a look at the smorgasbord of life in their very comprehensive study.

This image below is their site in Puerto Rico:

site in Puerto Rico collecting soil samples

One surprise is the wide range of polar soil species. Below is the less than exciting location of the Arctic LTER (Long Term Ecological Research) site!

location of the Arctic LTER (Long Term Ecological Research) site

Photos Credit: Ed Ayres, Colorado State University

From 11 sites worldwide, soil samples were DNA tested to indicate that each biome had its unique fauna. Diana Wall exclaimed that 96% were found at a single location only, "This challenges the long-held view that these smaller animals are widely distributed. However, unlike most above-ground organisms, there was no indication that latitude made a difference in soil animal diversity." Diana loves an Alice Through the Looking Glass analogy when considering the horde of unknown species living below ground. "You have roundworms, or nematodes, the lions of the underground," she says. She found 89 species of them in 90 cm3 of tropical forest soil in Cameroon. "The unseen, and mostly underappreciated, realm beneath us is teeming with life,"

From the dominant mites and roundworms come breakdown and cycling of soil nutrients.  Obviously, fungi and bacteria are heavily involved, but their predation and consumption is vital to the food webs below us. Low soil animal diversity where it occurs, is due to high levels of inorganic nitrogen and low pH where above ground diversity is very high. Kenyan grasslands were an example of this situation.

Matt Kane, whose NSF Division funded the study, is no less enthused. He indicates soil animals and microorganisms influence many ecosystems with their decomposition, nutrient cycling, carbon sequestration, plant community dynamics and even with their contribution to soil structure and other sediments. With this massive move away from traditional soil study, the molecular approach produced results on the composition of the soil fauna:

BorealTundra
Nematodes60.9%69.8%
Rotifers18.0%26.1%
Arthropods19.4%2.6%
Tardigrades1.3%1.5%

Bald figures belie the intrinsic variety of species exposed by the DNA study. New information was gleaned on species affected by global warming as Alaska defreezes. The significance of this pioneering research most probably lies in the new discoveries and this gem of evidence for huge impacts from global warming When Alice followed her White Rabbit to Wonderland, there was "not a moment to be lost."These scientists have the same story, but instead of fiction, we have Alaskan animalcules really telling us the present is changing fast.

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