Oct 192010

It’s not easy being a soil scientist at a meeting of the Convention on Biological Diversity. After all, when tigers, whales, and orchids are in danger, who cares about worms? “It would be an important step if anyone here at COP 10 noticed soil biodiversity exists,” said Luca Montanarella, SOIL Action Leader with the European Commission here to promote a brand new European Atlas of Soil Biodiversity that he edited.

No one knows exactly how many organisms live underground, but Montanarella said they probably represent at least a quarter, and probably over half, of all the species on Earth. Soil-dwelling species range from moles (one of the few vertabrates that spends its whole life underground) to ants, beetles, spiders and millipedes. The vast majority of species that live in dirt, however, are too small to see with the naked eye. This category includes fantastically bizarre creatures, like the Polyacanthus aculeatus (a spine-covered micro-armadillo), the Paracineta lauterborn (a globular protozoan which would not be out of place in a pack of Pokemon cards) and the Milnesium tardigradum (imagine a crumpled paper bag with feet).

Lest you think these underfoot critters have little relevance for your life, recall that healthy soil forms the literal base of our food supply, and soil critters are indispensable for healthy soil. Soil is also a crucial carbon sink, a sponge for rainfall that regulates water supplies, and even a source for medicines. For instance, rapamycine, a key drug used to prevent rejection of organ transplants, is produced using a microbe discovered in soil from Easter Island.

It’s impossible to say just how many soil organisms are endangered, Montanarella said, because most haven’t been tracked with the same attention given to more glamorous species. Nevertheless, agrochemicals, soil compaction from heavy farm machinery, and pavement all pose major threats to the creatures that live inside the earth.

About 25 or so people came to hear Montanarella talk today at a lunchtime event  (which, for undisclosed reasons, had been relegated to a distant and secluded wing of the conference hall). Enthusiasm in the room was high, and several delegates in the audience asked what they could do to raise the political profile of dirt. For now, Montanarella said he’d be happy if policy makers just stopped ignoring.