(Photo Credit: Stas Ovsky)
(ABOVE) How strong are the ‘relationships’ in soil communities? From left to right the interaction strength between groups in seminatural grasslands are visualized on recently, mid-term and long-term abandoned agricultural fields. (CREDIT: Elly Morriën et al. / Netherlands Institute of Ecology (NIOO-KNAW))
‘Relationships’ in the soil become stronger during the process of nature restoration. Although all major groups of soil life are already present in former agricultural soils, they are not really ‘connected’ at first. These connections need time to (literally) grow, and fungi are the star performers here. A European research team led by the Netherlands Institute of Ecology (NIOO-KNAW) has shown the complete network of soil life for the first time. Last month, the results of the extensive study were published in Nature Communications.
Earthworms, fungi, nematodes, mites, springtails, bacteria: it’s very busy underground! All soil life together forms one giant society. Under natural circumstances, that is. A large European research team discovered that when you try to restore nature on grasslands formerly used as agricultural fields, there is something missing. Lead author Elly Morriën from the Netherlands Institute of Ecology explains: “All the overarching, known groups of soil organisms are present from the start, but the links between them are missing. Because they don’t ‘socialise’, the community isn’t ready to support a diverse plant community yet.”
When nature restoration progresses, you’ll see new species appearing. But those major groups of soil life remain the same and their links grow stronger. “Just like the development of human communities”, says Morriën. “People start to take care of each other. In the soil, you can see that organisms use each other’s by-products as food.” In this way, nature can store and use nutrients such as carbon far more efficiently.
“Fungi turn out to play a very important role in nature restoration, appearing to drive the development of new networks in the soil.” In agricultural soils, the thready fungal hyphae are severely reduced by ploughing for example, and therefore the undamaged soil bacteria have an advantage and rule here. The researchers studied a series of former agricultural fields that had changed use 6 to 30 years previously. With time, there is a strong increase in the role of fungi.
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