Biodiversity below ground is just as important as above ground

September 2, 2015, University of Copenhagen
Soil biodiversity regulates a suite of functions in ecosystems. This has been demonstrated in a range of study sites at the Tibetan Plateau. Credit: Xin Jing, Peking University

Although most of the world's biodiversity is below ground, surprisingly little is known about how it affects ecosystems or how it will be affected by climate change. A new study demonstrates that soil bacteria and the richness of animal species below ground play a key role in regulating a whole suite of ecosystem functions on Earth. The authors call for far more attention to this overlooked world of worms, bugs and bacteria in the soil.

Ecosystem functions such as and the availability of nutrients are linked to the , bacteria and other that occur in the soil. In fact, as much as 32% of the variation seen in can be explained by the biodiversity in the soil. In comparison, plant biodiversity accounts for 42%. That is the conclusions of a new study published in Nature Communications led by Peking University and the Center for Macroecology, Evolution and Climate at the University of Copenhagen.

"Biodiversity below ground is neither very visible nor very cute, but pick up a handful of soil and you might find more species there than all of the vertebrates on the planet. We need to turn our attention towards these organisms, if we are to better understand the ecosystems we depend on for a range of functions", says co-author Aimée Classen from the Center for Macroecology, Evolution and Climate.

The study is unique in relating soil biodiversity to a whole suite of ecosystem functions rather than focusing on a few. These were combined in an index called ecosystem multifunctionality (EMF).

"Ecosystems have multiple functions which are all important. They store carbon in soil and biomass which has massive implications for climate change, but they also hold back and release various nutrients which have effects on natural areas as well as agricultural yield. Therefore, we need to be concerned with the multiple functions of ecosystems, what controls them and how this might change with climate change", says Dr. Xin Jing from Peking University.

The Tibetan Plateau in China was chosen as a study site for its extensive variation in climate. Credit: Xin Jing, Peking University

The study was carried out at 60 different sites of alpine grassland on the Tibetan Plateau in China which was chosen for its extensive variation in climate across sites. Even though rainfall, temperature and pH varied from place to place, the soil biodiversity always influenced ecosystem multifunctionality.

"The results suggest that the same pattern is likely to be found in other ecosystems around the world. However, our study also shows that the effect of soil biodiversity on ecosystem functions may be greater in areas with higher precipitation. That is important because scientific studies often focus on temperature - not precipitation - when predicting how ecosystems will respond to future changes such as ", says Associate Professor Aimée Classen.

Explore further: Fire damage to soils sets back bushfire recovery

More information: Jing X, Sanders NJ, Shi Y, Chu H, Classen AT, Zhao K, Chen L, Shi Y, Jiang Y, He J-S. The links between ecosystem multifunctionality and above- and belowground biodiversity are mediated by climate. Nature Communications DOI: 10.1038/NCOMMS9159

Related Stories

Fire damage to soils sets back bushfire recovery

August 25, 2015

Soils in areas hit by bushfires like the Sampson Flat fire may take several years to recover, say University of Adelaide soil scientists starting a new study into the effects of bushfires on soils.

The unbelievable underworld and its impact on us all

November 26, 2014

A new study has pulled together research into the most diverse place on earth to demonstrate how the organisms below-ground could hold the key to understanding how the worlds ecosystems function and how they are responding ...

Biodiversity enhances ecosystems global drylands: researchers

January 30, 2012

An international team of researchers including Dr. Bertrand Boeken of the Jacob Blaustein Institutes for Desert Research at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev suggest in a new study that plant biodiversity preservation is ...

Recommended for you

Rainfall's natural variation hides climate change signal

February 22, 2018

New research from The Australian National University (ANU) and ARC Centre of Excellence for Climate System Science suggests natural rainfall variation is so great that it could take a human lifetime for significant climate ...

Seasonal patterns in the Amazon explained

February 22, 2018

Environmental scientists at the U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE) Brookhaven National Laboratory have led an international collaboration to improve satellite observations of tropical forests.

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.