Sustaining Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services in Soils and Sediments

Sustaining Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services in Soils and Sediments

by Diana H. Wall

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Sustaining Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services in Soils and Sediments brings together the world's leading ecologists, systematists, and evolutionary biologists to present scientific information that integrates soil and sediment disciplines across terrestrial, marine, and freshwater ecosystems. It offers a framework for a new discipline, one that will allow future

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Sustaining Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services in Soils and Sediments brings together the world's leading ecologists, systematists, and evolutionary biologists to present scientific information that integrates soil and sediment disciplines across terrestrial, marine, and freshwater ecosystems. It offers a framework for a new discipline, one that will allow future scientists to consider the linkages of biodiversity below-surface, and how biota interact to provide the essential ecosystemservices needed for sustainable soils and sediments.

Contributors consider key-questions regarding soils and sediments and the relationship between soil- and sediment- dwelling organisms and overall ecosystem functioning. The book is an important new synthesis for scientists and researchers studying a range of topics, including global sustainability, conservation biology, taxonomy, erosion, extreme systems, food production, and related fields. In addition, it provides new insight and understanding for managers, policymakers, and others concerned with global environmental sustainability and global change issues.

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Editorial Reviews

director, Millennium Ecosystem Assessment - Walter Reid

"A path-breaking book that provides a remarkable cross-disciplinary synthesis of the state of science in this field and compelling evidence for the need to better understand these systems is we are to successfully manage ecosystem services."

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Island Press
Publication date:
Scientific Committee on Problems of the Environment (SCOPE) Series, #64
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Product dimensions:
6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.60(d)

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Sustaining Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services in Soils and Sediments

By Diana H. Wall


Copyright © 2004 Scientific Committee on Problems of the Environment (SCOPE)
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-59726-785-4


The Need for Understanding How Biodiversity and Ecosystem Functioning Affect Ecosystem Services in Soils and Sediments

Diana H. Wall, Richard D. Bardgett, Alan P. Covich, and Paul V.R. Snelgrove

There is an astonishing diversity of life in mud and dirt. Much of life as we know it is supported by the soils and sediments of freshwater lakes, ponds, streams, and rivers, and the vast sediments of estuaries and the ocean floor. Together, soils and sediments form an interconnected subsurface habitat that teems with millions of species providing essential ecosystem services for human well-being, such as cycling of nutrients, soil stabilization, and water purification. Like microbes, plants, and animals in more visible habitats across the earth, the below-surface habitats and their biodiversity are being modified at an unparalleled rate. Land use change and sediment change (trawling, dredging, damming, drying up of rivers), the movement and introduction of biotic species, changes in atmospheric composition (CO2, increasing availability of fixed nitrogen), climate change, and pollution are all agents of change to subsurface ecosystems. These alterations of soil and sediment habitats, and their biota, have major consequences for humans. Soils, freshwater and marine sediments and their biota are nonrenewable natural resources that humans depend on for the many goods and services that are so tightly linked to the economic basis of societies. Former US President Franklin D. Roosevelt once noted, "A nation that destroys its soils, destroys itself."

In the face of the rapid and massive transformation of global ecosystems, we need to assess the vulnerability of soil and sediment biodiversity to change and, in turn, to assess how this affects the nature of ecosystem services provided to humanity. This becomes increasingly important as we ask how we can sustainably conserve and manage these biota and habitats to ensure that future generations receive their critical ecosystem services.

This book addresses these and other important questions relating to how soil and sediment biodiversity contribute to human well-being and overall ecosystem function.

Freshwater Sediments, Marine Sediments, and Soils

Freshwater sediments, marine sediments, and soils cover the Earth's surface (Table 1.1) and are critical links between the terrestrial, aquatic, and atmospheric realms (Figure 1.1). These below-surface habitats are arguably the most diverse on the planet, teeming with a complex assemblage of species. The profusion of organisms and the composition of the biotic assemblages are integral to the maintenance of below-surface and above-surface habitats, to ecosystem functioning, and to the provision of ecosystem services that are crucial for human well-being (Wall et al. 2001b).

The public, farmers, gardeners, tourist industries, shoreline residents, and fishers are interested in the maintenance of sediments and soils for production of harvestable crops, recreation, and beauty of the landscape. These land users typically have high regard for the ecology of the habitats that they rely on for their livelihoods. They need to know: Will these shared resources—the soils and sediments and their biodiversity—be sustained in the future given increasing human populations and numerous and rapidly occurring changes in the environment? This has not been an easy question for scientists to answer.

Until recent decades, scientists considered the biota in the Earth's soils and sediments to be a "black box": They monitored the physical and chemical components of these environments, but treated the diverse, smaller organisms that comprise the soil and sediment community as an "unknown, undefined" set of functional groups. Now, facing this era of unprecedented anthropogenic disturbance resulting in biodiversity and habitat loss and the spread of invasive species, an urgent question facing both scientists and decision-makers is: Which taxa, and how much biodiversity, must be conserved to maintain or restore essential ecosystem functioning such as plant and animal production, breakdown of organic wastes and nutrient cycling?

The extremely diverse soil- and sediment-dwelling organisms occur all over the Earth and play critical roles in regulating the most vital ecosystem services (Daily et al. 1997; Petersen & Lubchenco 1997; Postel & Carpenter 1997). Identifying the significance of below-surface biological diversity for ecosystem functioning under scenarios of global change is being increasingly recognized as a major research priority (Lake et al. 2000; Smith et al. 2000; Wolters et al. 2000; Wall et al. 2001a). Changes in land-use practices affecting soils, in turn, have impacts for sediments of freshwater lakes, streams, rivers, estuaries, bays, and oceans. Alteration of hydrologic processes, contamination of soils, surface waters, and ground waters, and climate change are but a few examples of pressing problems that cannot be managed sustainably without a more complete understanding of the biota and ecosystem dynamics of soils and sediments. Applying this integrative knowledge to options for management and conservation will be crucial for long-term global sustainability of ecosystems and the welfare of human society (Millennium Ecosystem Assessment 2003).

This book highlights the fascinating biodiversity, ecosystem functions, and critical services provided by this often-assumed static and seemingly nondescript world of soils and sediments. The authors describe examples and present important priorities for research and considerations for sustainable management. This synthesis is an international, transdisciplinary assessment based on detailed knowledge for each of three separate domains—marine sediments, freshwater sediments, and soils—as well as identification of the most critical biota and their functions necessary for sustaining ecosystem services.

A Scientific Challenge

Furnishing the needed scientific information for this book has been challenging. We know that soils and sediments in most ecosystems contain enormous biological diversity—tens of millions of bacteria, thousands of fungal species, millions of protozoa and nematodes, up to a million arthropods (Groffman & Bohlen 1999), and thousands of species (World Conservation Monitoring Centre 1992; Wall et al. 2001 a,b) per square meter—and that assemblages of these organisms are responsible for ecosystem processes (Tables 1.2 and 1.3). However, specific information is still lacking regarding the importance of many species-specific functions and whether the species involved in these functions are irreplacable. Information on biogeographical distributions and responses to human activities, such as management regimes and global change, is also lacking for most keystone species (e.g., Covich et al. 1999; Levin et al. 2001; Wall et al. 2001 a,b).

Below-surface organisms generally have been neglected by researchers, and often have been unrecognized by management and conservation programs relative to above- surface biota. Scientific research as a whole has understandably emphasized the visible: large plants and animals above the Earth's surface (both aquatic and terrestrial). For example, the latitudinal distribution of species, species ranges, and the occurrence of hot spots of biodiversity—all information used for local to national management and policy decisions—are based primarily on the larger, charismatic above-surface organisms. The emphasis on above-surface research continues in universities; there are fewer specialists trained to study the taxonomy, evolutionary biology, and biodiversity of below-surface organisms and their biogeochemical interactions, which limits our understanding in each domain compared with our understanding of above-surface domains. Separate scientific disciplines have developed based on "distinct habitats" in soils, freshwater systems, and marine systems, increasing understanding within each but effectively hindering the study of soils and sediments as an ecological continuum. For example, the biodiversity linkages between the soils of farms and cities in terms of runoff to freshwater sediments, and then to ocean sediments, have typically been neglected. Part of this neglect may be because of the additional complexity and cost involved in organizing interdisciplinary teams, or because of the manner in which research organizations have traditionally focused on specific disciplines. Scientific publications addressing the subject of the relationship of biodiversity and ecosystem functioning in either marine or freshwater sediments make up only about 1/100th of those published on above-surface terrestrial ecosystems. Consequently, taxonomists have described only a fraction of below-surface diversity (e.g., less than 0.1 percent of the marine species may be known; Snelgrove et al. 1997) and there is no site on Earth for which all the soil or sediment species present have been described. Thus a major component of the global ecosystem has been a minor part of analyses that consider how modifications of ecosystems resulting from global changes would affect ecosystem processes and human well-being.

Building the Foundation for This Book

The synthesis of available knowledge on the biodiversity and ecosystem functioning below surface became an international scientific priority in 1992 as a result of a workshop on biodiversity and ecosystem functioning (Schulze & Mooney 1994). In 1995, a SCOPE (Scientific Committee on Problems in the Environment) Committee on Soil and Sediment Biodiversity and Ecosystem Functioning (SSBEF) began to evaluate available data with the goal of providing policy makers with the scientific tools and information needed to promote sound management. How did this committee proceed to build the foundation for this book?

Through unprecedented collaboration between 70 international taxonomists and ecosystem scientists with expertise in soils, freshwater sediments, and marine sediments, the SSBEF committee developed state-of-the-art interdisciplinary syntheses and identified research and policy areas that need the most urgent attention. The committee held three extremely successful international workshops (see the SCOPE SSBEF committee publication list at the back of this volume, and summaries at the website The workshops have resulted in 41 publications in journals read by scientists, managers, and policy makers. Additionally, the workshop syntheses have helped launch a new integrative discipline that crosses traditionally isolated disciplines (e.g., taxonomy, biogeochemistry, ecology), management, and domains (terrestrial, atmospheric, freshwater, and marine). This new scientific approach has contributed data to advance a more integrated and holistic understanding of Earth-system functioning and provides a foundation for this book. The SCOPE SSBEF syntheses identified major gaps in knowledge and research priorities in three overarching areas:

1. The importance of soil and sediment biodiversity and ecosystem functioning within domains (soils, freshwater sediments, marine sediments). Keystone functional groups (a group of species that has a much greater impact on an ecosystem process through impact on trophic relations than would be expected from its biomass) were identified within each domain. Comparisons among all domains revealed that, in general, the keystone ecosystem functions were strikingly similar in all domains (Table 1.3), although the taxa involved were often remarkably different. The diversity of functions performed may be more important than the diversity of organisms for sustaining ecosystem processes. Thus, there appear to be universally important functions performed across all soil and sediment domains, and these contribute to vital ecosystem goods and services (Table 1.4). For example, in all domains many species are part of a complex food web that breaks down organic matter—by shredding, ripping, or dissolving it—and thus recycles soil nutrients to living plants and releases carbon dioxide and sequesters carbon (Table 1.3). Species in both soils and sediments filter particles from water and influence its flow, in turn cleansing and purifying water and playing a pivotal role in nutrient cycling and in the Earth's hydrological cycle.

2. The importance of soil and sediment biodiversity and ecosystem functioning across domains. Collaboration of scientists from all domains was crucial to elucidating the understanding that below-surface species and the processes they regulate do not operate in just one domain (e.g., exclusively in soils, freshwater sediments, or marine sediments). These species play a critical role by crossing and connecting domains, below and above surface, and thus regulating essential global cycles that contribute to the stabilization of Earth's climate and the maintenance of functioning ecosystems. Moreover, human disturbances in one domain can have cascading effects onto other domains. The SSBEF review committee found that integrated knowledge, research, and management of the domain interfaces was severely lacking. They set this area of interface exploration as a major research priority in order to maintain the high diversity and important functions in soils and sediments.

3. Threats to soil and sediment biodiversity and their functioning. The SSBEF workshops revealed that across all domains, global change poses a significant threat to below-surface biodiversity and the ecosystem functions they regulate. There was evidence across domains that land use change (including deforestation, overfishing, damming of rivers, agricultural intensification, pollution, and increased trampling), invasive species, and climate change can shift species composition, eliminate species, and reduce diversity at local to regional scales (Lake et al. 2000; Smith et al. 2000; Wolters et al. 2000; Wall et al. 2001b). The loss of populations and species at these local and regional scales threatens biodiversity, since it reduces genetic diversity, foreclosing opportunities for evolution and homogenizing biodiversity across the landscape. Whether species become globally extinct depends on the geographical extent of their range relative to that of the disturbance. But high-resolution data on the effects of a perturbation on soil and sediment biodiversity at large biogeographic scales is incomplete and was identified as another research priority. The SSBEF committee also determined that across all domains, current and predicted global change effects on below-surface biodiversity are, and will be, manifested largely through changes linked to above-surface habitats and biodiversity. These above-surface changes will transform the below-surface physical-chemical environment, alter the transfer of nutrients and other resources belowground, and decouple species-specific interactions. These transformations may, in turn, have multiple, significant consequences for above-surface habitats and for their biodiversity and ecological processes.

Specific information was lacking on the vulnerability to human activities of the most important below-surface taxa and functions and their linkages above surface. How this vulnerability might be ameliorated by management options was considered an urgent priority for further research and synthesis. The workshops and syntheses of the SSBEF committee have advanced a paradigm shift in understanding biodiversity in soils and sediments. Scientists have acquired a more complete picture of these domains, especially the keystone taxa and functions, and are beginning to learn to what extent they are being, and may continue to be, disrupted and impaired by global change.

This improved, holistic understanding of below-surface biodiversity and of the linkages to organisms both above-surface and among domains was necessary before we could proceed toward addressing questions on the critical taxa, their ecosystem functions, habitats, biogeographical occurrence, and vulnerabilities.


Excerpted from Sustaining Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services in Soils and Sediments by Diana H. Wall. Copyright © 2004 Scientific Committee on Problems of the Environment (SCOPE). Excerpted by permission of ISLAND PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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