Monday, September 12, 2011

British Ecological Society meeting: day 1, the Tansley Lecture by Diane Wall

I am at the BES meeting in Sheffield. I will be spending most of the day in journal meetings, but I was able to attend the opening lecture. I will be able to attend more talks tomorrow.

Diana Wall gave the Tansley Lecture to open the meeting. The focus of her talk was about integrating soil biodiversity into ecosystem science. She started with a quote from Arthur Tansley about how all the aspects of an ecosystem can not be ignored, and Professor Wall argues that type soils, specifically the organisms living below ground have been largely ignored, and we do now live in an era where we can study all aspects of ecosystems. Her talk showed the ways in which soil orgasims matter and how global change may have consequences for the link between soil organisms and the ecosystem functions they provide.

This is especially important because soils are deteriorating globally, and while soils are home to an impressive diversity of organisms, so little understood about these organisms. Often we do not even know how many species are found in soils (though in many cases we are talking about hundreds or thousands of species per square meter, which means we can cannot predict how global change could affect these biota and the functions they provide.

She went through three examples to highlight the importance of soil organisms and research needs to predict the impacts of global change (here global change seems broadly defined including: temperature, precipitation, land use, and water flow). In the first example, she reviews the role of soil organisms in extreme ecosystems (Antarctic and hot desert) and how climate change may alter dynamics. Experiments show how important soil organism are for flow of nutrients and energy, and global change experiments show drastic changes in their abundance, thus we should expect large consequences as environments change, especially as moisture regimes change. In different systems, the relative importance of biotic vs abiotic drivers (e.g., the presence of plants versus moisture gradients) differs and differentially important for the ecosystem effects, and so more understanding is required for predictions.

In the second part, soil animals affect soil decomposition in moist places, thus changes in moisture affect ecosystem pathways. In the third part, she outlines the ways in which soil organisms provide ecosystem services, nutrient cycling, diseases, food, food webs, biocontrol, carbon storage, waster breakdown, etc. These services have been understudied and under appreciated.

Overall this talk was a lucid and poignant call for more work to be done on soil biota -not to know what is there necessarily, but rather to be able to link together the effects of changing environments on ecosystem function.

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