Soil Biodiversity in the Anthropocene
Dr. Stefan Geisen
Researcher, Netherlands Institute of Ecology
As introduced previously, soil biodiversity is crucial for soil functioning and, as such, for life on our planet. This remains unclear to many of us, for people other than soil biodiversity experts. We need to change this perception as changes in climate and soil management have a direct impact not only on aboveground macroscopic plant and animal life but also on soil biodiversity that is often invisible to the naked eye. Anthropogenic changes can be abrupt and might threaten soil biodiversity. Yet, we often don’t know how soil biodiversity is affected because we are only beginning to increase our understanding of the immense biodiversity living in soils. Together with Diana Wall and Wim van der Putten, we wrote an article to highlight soil biodiversity to a broader audience that is just published in Current Biology. This paper, as part of a special issue on anthropogenic changes, brings soil biodiversity together with topics that gain a lot more public attention such as the infamous insect decline, conservation of tropic forests, and microplastics in the environment.
In this paper we provide a short overview on what soil biodiversity is and on methods to study soil biodiversity (as we wrote about previously), but also show how soil biodiversity might be threatened by anthropogenic changes. Notably, we show how soil biodiversity might help in mitigating negative changes to soils and ecosystem functioning in general. We also list possible ways every one of us can help increase soil biodiversity, or at least minimize our own footprint in decreasing soil biodiversity. One of the main messages is that we currently know too little to ignore potential changes faced by soil biodiversity in the Anthropocene and as such should extend our knowledge by more intense research efforts. The recently rapidly increasing efforts to map soil biodiversity at the planetary scale such as for bacteria, fungi and nematodes help in expanding our knowledge on the biogeography of soil biota, and also have revealed the potential interactions of different groups of biota such as bacteria and fungi in soils. Yet, these efforts often raise many more questions than they can answer. As such, much more work on soil biodiversity is needed to understand the importance of soil biodiversity changes in the Anthropocene and how important these are to soil functions.
In the end, we highlight that soil function is tightly linked to soil biodiversity and that a higher soil biodiversity is positively linked to many soil functions. This means that often an increase in soil biodiversity is correlated with a reduction in the need to manage land resulting in lower costs for land managers! Thinking of soil biodiversity also in applied settings might be the famous low-hanging fruit in reducing management costs, and simultaneously keep soil biodiversity intact: an unknown resource of organisms that are the source of most antibiotics, include potential biocontrol agents, biofertilizers and more!