One of Nebraska’s Greatest Resources – Dirt | Local


In biology and in nature, it is often easy to ignore everything that happens below the surface of the ground. For much of my career, I have been involved in small mammal studies, beginning with UNL’s Mead Experiment Station, which examined small mammal use of different grassland species and habitat types. habitats and I had similar studies until a year ago.

These efforts led me to work with small mammals at the University of Montana in the zoology department (I would have preferred to work with grizzly bears!). But oh well. Since then, we’ve trapped land-dwelling mammals in four Great Plains states and seen a variety of small, furry creatures that most never see. Obviously deer mice take the number one spot, but we have also seen and studied prairie dogs, meadow voles, hispid pocket mice, 13-lined ground squirrels, masked and short-tailed shrews, meadow jumping mice and many others. When these animals burrow, they help bring the soil to the surface and mix it more thoroughly.

Anglers know that earthworms are prevalent and burrow in moist, loose soil. Earthworms burrow into soils, mixing organic matter with minerals as they go and aerating the soil. Some earthworms pull leaves from the forest floor into their burrows, called “dumps”, enriching the soil. Up to 4,000 worms can live in an acre of soil, depending on where you are.

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Ants and other insects (many are beetles – topic for another day) are also found in the basement. They create a matrix of tunnels and build mounds, mixing soils and raising soils underground in the process. In their process of foraging, they also gather vegetation in their mounds, which, as a result, become rich in organic matter fertilizing the soil around us.

Animals and life forms that we cannot see are the most common. In fact, more life forms live below the surface of the ground than above it. These soil dwellers include bacteria, fungi, and algae that all use leftover flora and fauna as a source of nutrients. This important process provides humus which is a key organic component of soil. This decomposition is an important process in the recycling of nutrients in the ecosystem.

Bacteria are the most abundant life form in most soils and are responsible for the decomposition of crop, forest and grassland residues. Some bacteria are the work engines that convert ammonia in the soil into nitrogen, which is essential for plant growth. One gram of soil can produce a few million to several billion microorganisms, which strikes me as amazing. Algae are abundant on the surface of moist soils. Plankton, like rotifers, are also present in moist soils.

As my knowledge of the ecosystem grew over the years, I became more and more interested in fungal growth in the ecosystem. Fungi, especially their mycelium (fungal root system) which permeates the soil column in more ways than we could ever imagine, offer unique nutrient utilization advantages. These fascinating organisms range from multi-celled mushrooms to the expression of a large wild fruiting body that we see growing in the woods when we hunt mushrooms in the spring. Fungi are amazing at breaking down a wider variety of organic compounds than bacteria.

As agriculture replaced native grasses like big bluestem and little bluestem with Indian grass, shallow root crops took their place. Roots of native plants have been found within 30 inches up to 15 feet deep. For a long time, the deep roots of native plants were considered adaptations for better water absorption. Recent evidence indicates otherwise. These residual root masses may have provided a niche to retain more moisture (even during drought), to allow more fungal and microbiological processes to continue.

Human impacts seem to provide good opportunities to ask the right questions about how things work in nature. Good luck Zac Taylor and the Cincinnati Bengals this weekend. It’s nice to cheer on all things Nebraska in football!

Michael P. Gutzmer, PhD is director and owner of New Century Environmental LLC and provides environmental consulting services on the Great Plains. NCE works with water, wetlands, habitat development for threatened and endangered species and pollution issues. Please email me at [email protected]

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