The Soil Food Web: Part 1 Introduction

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Last month, we learned that soil is not an inert growing medium – it is a living and life-giving natural resource. It is teaming with billions of bacteria, fungi, and other microbes that are the foundation of an elegant symbiotic ecosystem.

Lets start learning about soil biodiversity by understanding the soil food web (credit: USDA Soil Biology Primer).

Soil-Food-Web-diagram

An incredible diversity of organisms make up the soil food web. They range in size from the tiniest one-celled bacteria, algae, fungi, and protozoa, to the more complex nematodes and micro-arthropods, to the visible earthworms, insects, small vertebrates, and plants.

As these organisms eat, grow, and move through the soil, they make it possible to have clean water, clean air, healthy plants, and moderated water flow. There are many ways that the soil food web is an integral part of landscape processes.

Soil organisms decompose organic compounds, including manure, plant residue, and pesticides, preventing them from entering water and becoming pollutants. They sequester nitrogen and other nutrients that might otherwise enter groundwater, and they fix nitrogen from the atmosphere, making it available to plants. Many organisms enhance soil aggregation and porosity, thus increasing infiltration and reducing runoff. Soil organisms prey on crop pests and are food for above-ground animals. Organisms live in the microscale environments within and between soil particles. Differences over short distances in pH, moisture, pore size, and the types of food available create a broad range of habitats

The soil food web is the community of organisms living all or part of their lives in the soil. A food web diagram shows a series of conversions (represented by arrows) of energy and nutrients as one organism eats another (see food web diagram). All food webs are fueled by the primary producers: the plants, lichens, moss, photosynthetic bacteria, and algae that use the sun’s energy to fix carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Most other soil organisms get energy and carbon by consuming the organic compounds found in plants, other organisms, and waste by-products. A few bacteria, called chemoautotrophs, get energy from nitrogen, sulfur, or iron compounds rather than carbon compounds or the sun. As organisms decompose complex materials, or consume other organisms, nutrients are converted from one form to another, and are made available to plants and to other soil organisms. All plants – grass, trees, shrubs, agricultural crops – depend on the food web for their nutrition.

Soil Biology Primer Available: http://www.nrcs.usda.gov/wps/portal/nrcs/main/soils/health/biology/ [accessed 23/10/22).