What are soil biota and what do they do?

Soil biota, the biologically active powerhouse of soil, include an incredible diversity of organisms. Tons of soil biota, including micro-organisms (bacteria, fungi, and algae) and soil “animals” (protozoa, nematodes, mites, springtails, spiders, insects, and earthworms), can live in an acre of soil and are more diverse than the community of plants and animals above ground. Soil biota are concentrated in plant litter, the upper few inches of soil, and along roots. Soil organisms interact with one another, with plant roots, and with their environment, forming the soil food web.

As soil organisms consume organic matter and each other, nutrients and energy are exchanged through the food web and are made available to plants. Each soil organism plays a role in the decomposition of plant residue, dead roots, and animal remains. The larger soil organisms, such as millipedes and earthworms, shred dead leaves and residue, mix them with the soil, and make organic material more accessible to immobile bacteria. Earthworms can completely mix the top 6 inches of a humid grassland soil in 10 to 20 years. Ants and termites mix and tunnel through soils in areas of arid and semiarid rangeland.

Predators in the soil food web include scorpions, centipedes, spiders, mites, some ants, insects, and beetles. They control the population of soil biota. The smaller organisms, including mites, springtails, nematodes, and one-celled protozoa, graze on bacteria and fungi. Other organisms feed on dead roots, shredded residue, and the fecal by-products of the larger organisms. The smallest soil organisms, microscopic bacteria and fungi, make up the bulk of the biota in the soil. They finish the process of decomposition by breaking down the remaining material and storing its energy and nutrients in their cells. Algae and fungi are the first organisms to colonize rock and form “new soil” by releasing substances that disintegrate rock.

Visit the Ecomerge website to learn more about organic gardening soil and how to preserve soil at home.