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Importance of Underground Life

The are a valuable resource in our environment, and this should be remembered if a community is to be protected.

Conservation aims to protect important natural resources, both living and non-living; recognising that these resources play a vital role in modern life.

Biodiversity (Photo credit: Dano)

Biodiversity (Photo credit: Dano)

There is a temptation to focus conservation attempts on large animals that we can see but it could be beneficial to also conserve the hidden microbial world that allows larger organisms to flourish.

Underground Wealth

The soils beneath our feet are an incredibly diverse environment, with most terrestrial ecosystems having much greater variety of species in their soils and decomposing material than is evident above ground. It has even been said that one shovel of dirt contains a greater amount of biodiversity than is found in an untouched rainforest. This wealth of diversity is important in maintaining the efficient functioning of ecosystems, their involvement in nutrient cycles allows other organisms to survive and provides the foundation for their ecosystem. In addition to their important roles in nutrient cycling, many microorganisms have formed relationships that are vital to the success of others.  For example mycorhiza are soil-dwelling fungi that are important to over 80% of terrestrial plants because they allow enhanced uptake of many important nutrients by root systems. Without the presence of mycorhiza many higher plants would be unable to collect the nutrients essential for growth, so an abundance of mycorhizal fungi has a key role in maintaining plant diversity, and they require a greater degree of protection in order to ensure that terrestrial plants are more productive.

Importance to Climate Change

The diversity of species found within soils below is important to the issue of climate change.  Below ground communities can be manipulated to increase the amount of carbon and nitrogen that they absorb and this could help to reduce climate change.  Research in recent years has shown clearly that the maintenance of healthy carbon cycles within our ecosystems can have a real impact on global climate change; the reduced diversity of species found within leaf litter can have a negative effect on the efficiency of the carbon cycle.

Future Protection

As well as being home to micro-organisms that are important today, many soil organisms have as yet undefined role and may have an important role in the future, providing ecosystems with extra protection in a rapidly changing world. 

Below Ground Diversity and Future Ecology

Although it would seem that below ground ecosystems should have a large capacity to withstand disturbance, the effect of our activities on below ground organisms should not be underestimated. We know that we need to limit and reduce the use of pesticides and other chemicals for the sake of the environment; we could use microorganisms to replace the functions that we now use chemicals for.  Greater awareness of below ground communities and a greater appreciation of their importance need to be part of conservation in the future.  It has been shown that below-ground ecosystems, and increasingly in examination of above-ground communities, do not always show the  simple relationships between biodiversity and productivity that is desired by so many who are interested in conservation and sustainable development.  However the life that exists within the soil needs to be considered with a greater degree of importance than is currently afforded to these organisms. Conservation programs focus too often on species that exist above ground, greater attention needs to be paid to how human activities affect communities below ground as well. Ecosystems function as a whole, including what is found beneath the surface, and we need to think more of this component as we plan for the future.

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