The soil as a living space in the spotlight

Springtails (Collembola) are important soil dwellers and can provide useful information about soil quality and protection needs. (Image: Photo: Andy Murray)

Worms, springtails and the like: Researchers emphasize the enormous importance of living things in the ground and call for the underground ecosystems to be better considered in future international protection strategies. In order to better record the condition, services and threats of these habitats and their inhabitants, the international team is campaigning for systematic research on the basis of globally uniform standards.

Inconspicuous and yet so important: the activity of the organisms in the soil ultimately also enables life on the earth’s surface. The subsurface is also one of the most biodiverse habitats on earth: up to 1.5 kilograms of living beings, belonging to many different species from different groups, scurry under one square meter of the earth’s surface: roundworms, earthworms, springtails, mites, insect larvae and many other organisms are at home there. There are also myriads of microorganisms.

Hardly noticed, these soil dwellers perform enormously important services above them: They eat and convert living and dead animal and plant material into nutrients for new life and thus form a key element in the earthly material cycle. Without the soil organisms, most plants cannot grow and thus cannot produce food for animals and humans. In addition, soils are the most important carbon store on earth and thus an important factor in climate change, experts emphasize.

A foundation is threatened

Despite this enormous importance, soils have so far hardly played a role in international strategies for the protection of biodiversity, write the scientists led by Carlos Guerra from the German Center for Integrative Biodiversity Research Halle-Jena-Leipzig in the journal Science. According to them, more attention is needed for this habitat, because the underground ecosystems are not healthy in many areas of the earth. “If we do not protect the soil for the next generations, the aboveground biodiversity and food production cannot be guaranteed either,” they write in their appeal, which is addressed to the 196 states that are currently under the UN Convention on Biological Diversity Negotiating a new strategy to protect biodiversity.

As the scientists make clear, soils often suffer from fertilizers, pesticides and intensive cultivation with heavy machinery. Climate change is also affecting them in many places. They are increasingly compacted, built over or dwindling through wind and water erosion. As a result, the living organisms in the soil are also often impaired and the various services of the soil, such as cleaning water or protecting against plant diseases, stress the scientists.

Monitoring concept presented

“So far, soil protection has been reduced too much to avoiding erosion and the loss of productivity in agriculture,” says Guerra. His colleague author Diana Wall from Colorado State University adds: “In addition, measures so far have primarily focused on life above ground, such as the designation of protected areas. Since these do not necessarily also benefit the underground biodiversity, the specific needs of the communities in the soil should also be taken into account ”.

The researchers emphasize that better information is needed as a basis for this. That is why you set up the “Soil BON” monitoring network. “We want to provide politicians with the necessary decision-making aids,” says co-author Nico Eisenhauer from the University of Leipzig. “Soil BON should now generate the relevant data and provide support in order to achieve this goal.” As part of the project, scientists are now collecting comparable soil data across the board and over long periods of time.

The researchers emphasize that uniform rules worldwide are necessary for this. To this end, they are presenting a concept that includes the key parameters for measuring biodiversity and its change – such as soil respiration, nutrient turnover or genetic diversity. With the monitoring and indicator system, scientists can derive indicators that are comparable worldwide, which can serve as a basis for making decisions about the assessment and protection of soil. “By recording and protecting the biological diversity in the soil, we support the fulfillment of many sustainability goals, be it climate protection, food supply or the protection of biological diversity,” says Guerra in conclusion.

Source: German Center for Integrative Biodiversity Research Halle-Jena-Leipzig, specialist article: Science, doi: 10.1126 / science.abd7926

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