The Thriving Symphony of Soil: How Biodiversity & BioTurbation Promotes Nutrient Flow Through Soils & To Plants

Worm compost can replace peat - there are three types of earthworms, this one is a compost worm.It is part of a rich soil biodiversity driven by bioturbation
Worm compost can replace peat

Soil biodiversity isn’t just a collection of creepy crawlies and wiggly worms; it’s a vibrant process that plays a fundamental role in the movement of nutrients that we call bioturbation. When we delve into the intricate ways these diverse life forms coexist we find they work together to create a fertile and flourishing environment.

The video below demonstrates the process, but first let me explain the process.

Processing Powerhouse: Bioturbation, From Dead Matter to Nutrient Rich Soils

Organic matter, the once-living remains of plants and animals, is the “fuel” that keeps the soil ecosystem running. But it needs to be broken down into a form that is usable by plants. This is where the soil’s biodiversity plays an essential role. It’s why we must keep our soil alive.

  • Microbial Munching: Microscopic decomposers like bacteria and fungi are the “first responders”, breaking down complex organic matter into simpler compounds. Think of them as the shredders in a giant composting operation.
  • The Macroinvertebrate Maestro: Enter the earthworms, beetles, mites, and other larger invertebrates. These tireless organisms not only physically break down organic matter but also create channels and tunnels through the soil, allowing for better air and water infiltration. I’ve written about soil porosity elsewhere. Studies like those by Lavelle et al. (1997) demonstrate how earthworm activity (faunalturbation) significantly enhances the movement of nutrients and water within the soil profile.

The Nutrient Highway: A Collaborative Effort

The processed organic matter, now a delicious dinner for plants, needs to get where it’s needed most. Here’s a complex range of soil fauna take part.

  • Mycorrhizal Magic: Fungi form symbiotic relationships with plant roots, acting as tiny extensions that help plants access nutrients like phosphorus and nitrogen more efficiently.
  • Beetle Bonanza: Dung beetles and other detritivores break down animal waste, releasing valuable nutrients back into the soil, while their burrowing actions further improve soil aeration.
  • The Worm Way: Earthworms, besides their role in decomposition, also play a critical role in nutrient cycling. Their castings, rich in nutrients and microbes, act as a natural fertilizer for plants.

Diversity Breeds Resilience: A Balanced Ecosystem is Key

A soil ecosystem dominated by a single type of organism is like a one-hit wonder band. It might function for a while, but it lacks the adaptability and resilience necessary for long-term health. Here’s why diversity matters:

  • Multiple Processing Pathways: With a diverse range of decomposers, there’s a higher chance of breaking down a wider variety of organic matter, ensuring a more complete nutrient cycle.
  • Competition for Resources: Biodiversity fosters a healthy level of competition for resources, leading to a more efficient use of available nutrients.
  • Adaptability to Change: A diverse soil community can adapt better to environmental changes like drought or fluctuations in temperature.

By understanding and promoting soil biodiversity, we can create a thriving ecosystem that not only facilitates the movement of nutrients but also fosters a resilient and productive soil environment.

Recap: Bioturbation Definition

Bioturbation refers to the natural process of reworking of soils and sediments by living organisms. This includes a variety of activities such as:

  • Burrowing: Animals like earthworms, moles, and nematodes dig tunnels and create channels within the soil.
  • Ingestion and defecation: Many soil organisms consume organic matter and soil particles, breaking them down and then excreting them in a different form (castings) which can improve nutrient distribution.
  • Mixing: The movement of organisms through the soil disrupts layers and mixes different soil horizons.

Bioturbation plays a significant role in maintaining healthy soil ecosystems by:

  • Enhancing aeration: The channels and tunnels created by burrowing organisms allow for better air and water movement through the soil, promoting healthy root growth for plants.
  • Improving drainage: Bioturbation can help prevent waterlogging by creating pathways for excess water to drain.
  • Promoting nutrient cycling: The breakdown and redistribution of organic matter by soil organisms releases nutrients in a form readily available for plant uptake.
  • Increasing soil heterogeneity: Bioturbation creates a patchwork of different soil conditions within the same area, which can benefit a wider variety of plant species.

The overall impact of bioturbation depends on the types and abundance of organisms present in the soil. A diverse and healthy soil community leads to more effective bioturbation and a more fertile soil environment.

References:

Lavelle, P., Villedary, P., Brinkert, A., & Le Roux, X. (1997). The impact of soil macrofauna on tropical soil fertility. European Journal of Soil Science, 48(4), 519-533. (https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/agricultural-and-biological-sciences/soil-fauna)

Bioturbation, ecosystem functioning and community structure. C.L. Biles, D.M. Paterson, R.B. Ford, M. Solan and D.G. Raffaelli. This deals with marine sediments

The Effects Of Bioturbation On Soil Processes And Sediment Transport. Gabet, Reichman & Seabloom

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