Role of Arthropods in Maintaining Soil Fertility
In terms of species richness, arthropods may represent as much as 85% of the soil fauna. They comprise a large proportion of the meso- and macrofauna of the soil. Within the litter/soil system, five groups are chiefly represented: Isopoda, Myriapoda, Insecta, Acari, and Collembola, the latter two being by far the most abundant and diverse. Arthropods function on two of the three broad levels of organization of the soil food web: they are plant litter transformers or ecosystem engineers. Litter transformers fragment, or comminute, and humidify ingested plant debris, which is deposited in feces for further decomposition by micro-organisms, and foster the growth and dispersal of microbial populations. Large quantities of annual litter input may be processed (e.g., up to 60% by termites). The comminuted plant matter in feces presents an increased surface area to attack by micro-organisms, which, through the process of mineralization, convert its organic nutrients into simpler, inorganic compounds available to plants. Ecosystem engineers alter soil structure, mineral and organic matter composition, and hydrology. The burrowing by arthropods, particularly the subterranean network of tunnels and galleries that comprise termite and ant nests, improves soil porosity to provide adequate aeration and water-holding capacity below ground, facilitate root penetration, and prevent surface crusting and erosion of topsoil. Also, the movement of particles from lower horizons to the surface by ants and termites aids in mixing the organic and mineral fractions of the soil. The feces of arthropods are the basis for the formation of soil aggregates and humus, which physically stabilize the soil and increase its capacity to store nutrients.
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