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An Illinois River Almanac

Jason Haupt's Energy and Environment Blog
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Digging In: Secret Soil Stuff


There is a whole world under our feet. It is more than just "dirt" that you are standing on. In fact, it is not even dirt, it is soil. The soil beneath your feet is teeming with life. It is a world that is alien to us, but is just as amazing as the world that is around us. Soil has so much life in it, ranging from the earthworms that you see to things that are not visible unless you look at it under a very powerful microscope. And all of this life is important to the health of the soil and to the plants that grow in it.

Earthworms are the most noticeable of the creatures that live in the soil. They are big, and when it rains they come to the surface. They serve an important role in our modern soils creating air and water pathways, increasing infiltration, and benefiting plants growing in the area. Plant roots need both oxygen and water to survive. Earthworms are not native to the United States and were likely brought over in the ballasts of the first ships that made their way to our coasts but they are one of few nonnative species that are beneficial to the environment. Earthworms are not the only worms that are found in the soil. There are others that are much smaller and never emerge from the ground.

Nematodes are microscopic round worms that are found in the soil. They have gotten a bad name, as some are not beneficial to row crops. But in general, nematodes are highly beneficial to soils and are extremely numerous. There can be more than a million individuals in a square yard. They do not digest organic matter in the soil, but they are very important in controlling other organisms in the soil. Some species play a role in the nitrogen cycle, and some play a big role in controlling the bacteria populations that are present in the soil.

Also very important in the soil are bacteria. They are more numerous than any other organism in the soil. In a cup of soil, the number of bacteria would outnumber the people on the planet by several orders of magnitude. It is estimated that in healthy soils there could be in excess of 200 billion bacteria. Bacteria help to break down the organic matter in the soil and release nutrients that are needed by plants.

Fungi serve a huge role in breaking down organic matter in the soil. Most people think of mushrooms when they think of fungi, but there is more to a fungus than just its "fruiting structure". The soil contains millions of microscopic filaments. These filaments are called hyphae, and there are hundreds of thousands of feet in each cup of soil. Fungi also serve an important role in healthy soils when they form a symbiotic relationship with plants. When this happens, a mycorrhiza is formed and it benefits both organisms. The relation is not entirely clear, but it appears that many of the mycorrhiza fungi are very important in forming healthy soils, and in some cases, are required for certain types of plants to grow.

If you have any other questions about Natural Resources, please contact Jason Haupt (jdhaupt@illinois.edu).



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