USDA - THE SOIL FOOD WEB
Natural Resources Conservation Service
By Elaine R. Ingham
The following is an excerpt. For full article go to: http://soils.usda.gov/sqi/concepts/soil_biology/soil_food_web.html
Soil Biology - Overview
The creatures living in the soil are critical to soil quality. They affect soil structure and therefore soil erosion and water availability. They can protect crops from pests and diseases. They are central to decomposition and nutrient cycling and therefore affect plant growth and amounts of pollutants in the environment. Finally, the soil is home to a large proportion of the world's genetic diversity.
Soil Biology and The Landscape
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.
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.
How Do Food Webs Differ?
Each field, forest, or pasture has a unique soil food web with a particular proportion of bacteria, fungi, and other groups, and a particular level of complexity within each group of organisms. These differences are the result of soil, vegetation, and climate factors, as well as land management practices..
The “structure” of a food web is the composition and relative numbers of organisms in each group within the soil system. Each type of ecosystem has a characteristic food web structure.
What Is Food Web Complexity?
Food web complexity is a factor of both the number of species and the number of different kinds of species in the soil. For example, a soil with ten species of bacterial-feeding nematodes is less complex than a soil with ten nematode species that includes bacterial-feeders, fungal-feeders, and predatory nematodes.
Land management practices can alter the number of functional groups – or complexity – in the soil. Intensively managed systems, such as cropland, have varied numbers of functional groups. Crop selections, tillage practices, residue management, pesticide use, and irrigation alter the habitat for soil organisms, and thus alter the structure and complexity of the food web.
Disease suppression. A complex soil food web contains numerous organisms that can compete with disease-causing organisms. These competitors may prevent soil pathogens from establishing on plant surfaces, prevent pathogens from getting food, feed on pathogens, or generate metabolites that are toxic to or inhibit pathogens.
Degradation of pollutants
An important role of soil is to purify water. A complex food web includes organisms that consume (degrade) a wide range of pollutants under a wide range of environmental conditions.
Greater food web complexity means greater biodiversity. Biodiversity is measured by the total number of species, as well as the relative abundance of these species, and the number of functional groups of organisms.
Management and Soil Health
A healthy soil effectively supports plant growth, protects air and water quality, and ensures human and animal health. The physical structure, chemical make-up, and biological components of the soil together determine how well a soil performs these services.
In every healthy system or watershed, the soil food web is critical to major soil functions including:
- sustaining biological activity, diversity, and productivity;
-regulating the flow of water and dissolved nutrients;
- storing and cycling nutrients and other elements; and
- filtering, buffering, degrading, immobilizing and detoxifying organic and inorganic materials that are potential pollutants.
Successful land management requires approaches that protect all resources, including soil, water, air, plants, animals and humans. Many management strategies change soil habitats and the food web, and alter soil quality, or the capacity of soil to perform its functions. Examples of some practices that change the complexity and health of the soil community include:
Compared to a field with a 2-year crop rotation, a field with a 4 crops grown in rotation may have a greater variety of food sources (i.e., roots and surface residue), and therefore is likely to have more types of bacteria, fungi, and other organisms.
A cleanly-tilled field with few vegetated edges may have fewer habitats for arthropods than a field broken up by grassed waterways, terraces, or fence rows.
Although the effect of pesticides on soil organisms varies, high levels of pesticide use will generally reduce food web complexity. An extreme example is the repeated use of methyl bromide which has been observed to eliminate most soil organisms except a few bacteria species.
The Food Web and Carbon Sequestion
Land management practices can be chosen to increase the amount of carbon sequestered as soil organic matter and reduce the amount of CO2, a greenhouse gas, released to the atmosphere.
As the soil food web decomposes organic material, it releases carbon into the atmosphere as CO2 or converts it to a variety of forms of soil organic matter. Labile or active fractions of organic matter stay in the soil for a few years. Stable forms reside in the soil for decades or hundreds of years. Physically stabilized organic matter is protected inside soil aggregates that soil organisms help create. Humified organic matter is stable because bacteria and fungi have helped form molecules that are too complex and large for soil organisms to decompose.