, Volume 170, Issue 1, pp 5-22

A hierarchical approach to evaluating the significance of soil biodiversity to biogeochemical cycling

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Abstract

The significance of biodiversity to biogeochemical cycling is viewed most directly through the specific biogeochemical transformations that organisms perform. Although functional diversity in soils can be great, it is exceeded to a high degree by the richness of soil species. It is generally inferred from this richness that soil systems have a high level of functional redundancy. As such, indices of species richness probably contribute little to understanding the functioning of soil ecosystems. Another approach stresses the value of identifying “keystone” organisms, that is those that play an exceptionally important role in determining the structure and function of ecosystems. Both views tend to ignore the importance of biodiversity in maintaining the numerous and complex interactions among organisms in soils and their contributions to biogeochemical cycling. We describe some of those interactions and their importance to ecosystem function.

Soil organisms alter the physical, chemical and biological properties of soils in innumerable ways. The composition and structure of biotic communities at one hierarchical level can influence the spatial heterogeneity of resource and refuge patches at other hierarchical levels. This spatial heterogeneity is supported by a number of biologically relevant spheres of influence that include the detritusphere, the drilosphere, the porosphere, the aggregatusphere and the rhizosphere. Each has fairly distinct properties that operate at different spatial scales. We discuss how these properties may function in regulating the interactions among organisms and the biogeochemical processes that they mediate. It is through the formation of a spatially and temporally heterogeneous structure that biodiversity may contribute most significantly to the functioning of soil ecosystems. Real advances in understanding the significance of biodiversity to biogeochemical cycling will come from taking a broader view of biodiversity. Such a view will necessarily encompass many levels of resolution including: 1) the importance of biodiversity to specific biogenic transformations, 2) the complexity and specificity of biotic interactions in soils that regulate biogeochemical cycling, and 3) how biodiversity may operate at different hierarchically arranged spatial and temporal scales to influence the structure and function of ecosystems.