An unexplored urban jungle



Tomorrow morning a group of soil ecologists will meet on the steps of the American Museum of Natural History to begin a day-long effort to sample the soils of Central Park, New York City. Within soil lives an astounding amount of biological diversity, scaling from microbes to insects and worms that is mostly invisible to the naked eye. One question researchers are interested in is how this biodiversity compares to soils in natural systems- Yellowstone National Park, for example. Do the same controls, such as temperature, rain events, plants and soil nutrients, that determine the composition of organism in a soil community in forests or grasslands hold up in a city park in the middle of Manhattan?

Soil provides a number of ecosystem services that are necessary for human well-being (see this interesting NYTimes article for more on ecosystem services). Urban soils can provide the same ecosystem services as natural soils- food production, water cycling and purification, and carbon cycling (especially important in the context of climate change). Additionally, urban soils provide a habitat for a vast amount of soil biodiversity, though it is still unclear just which organisms thrive under urban conditions and how the services they provide may be affected by urban stresses.

The glamorous job of soil sampling involves metal soil corers, sharpies, collection bags and a love of dirt. For this project we will collect soils, about a handful sized amount for each sample, from over 600 sampling locations throughout Central Park.
(The park is ½ mile wide and we will be sampling from approximately 15 points across the width of the park, for 50 blocks, minus area covered by water = greater than 600 soil samples!)
Just for fun, we have only scheduled one sampling day, so this is going to be a crazy sampling effort!! (And it may be a bit warm.)

For this project we will use molecular sequencing techniques to see where and what types of life (both new and cosmopolitan) lie beneath the surface of Central Park. Then, we will build maps of the microbial and micro-/meso- faunal diversity across the park and compare the biodiversity with the plant cover, nutrient levels and other soil characteristics. Additionally, we will get a pretty good idea of the shear amount of soil biodiversity that lives in Central Park.

This is a collaborative research project organized by the GSBI and researchers from CSU, CU-Boulder, Yale and the AMNH (see this post for more details).

Stay tuned for the post sampling post, glamorous field shots and more information on the project.