Soils provide humans with a whole range of irreplaceable ecosystem services the production and maintenance of which are largely dependent on the actions of the animal communities which inhabit them. Apart from the substantial agricultural production made necessary by humanity’s demand for food, soils filter and store water, holding back erosion and flooding. They provide a large proportion of the nutrients necessary for plant growth and for maintaining biodiversity, and at the same time limit greenhouse-gas emissions by storing organic matter. They are a rich harbour of biodiversity. But their associated processes are barely understood.
Soil quality is often overlooked in farming practice. Yet it is one of the key factors for rendering ecosystem services. Soils become depleted by intensive cultivation, erosion, deforestation or pollution. Subsurface fauna communities, which play a prime role in the preservation and maintenance of this quality, are often largely eliminated by farming procedures in which they are not taken into account. Burrowing animals create soil structure which limits the impact of erosion and provides zones underground where water can accumulate. This underground activity also offers prospects for atmospheric detoxification by means of carbon sequestration, and control of methane production or of oxidising agents such as nitric oxide. Earthworms, termites and ants –known indeed as soil or ecosystem engineers- regulate the activity of smaller organisms, thereby controlling the various stages of soil biogeochemical cycles. They stimulate the auxiliary micro-organisms of plants while limiting the impact of parasites, for example extremely harmful soil nematodes. The presence and diversity of these animals is naturally an indicator of the “good health” of the land they inhabit.
Research on these aspects is vital at a time when the preoccupation of those in soil management is no longer solely straightforward agricultural production. These practitioners are concerned about farming’s negative effects on other ecosystem services this medium performs. The pieces of research presented will draw a picture of the range of influences the fauna exerts and set out for soil managers alternative methods and indices potentially useful for evaluation and adjustment of soil management practices and policies.
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