The enigma of soil animal species diversity revisited: the role of small-scale heterogeneity

Uffe N Nielsen, Graham H R Osler, Colin D Campbell, Roy Neilson, David F R P Burslem, Rene van der Wal

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

90 Citations (Scopus)
7 Downloads (Pure)


Background: "The enigma of soil animal species diversity'' was the title of a popular article by J. M. Anderson published in 1975. In that paper, Anderson provided insights on the great richness of species found in soils, but emphasized that the mechanisms contributing to the high species richness belowground were largely unknown. Yet, exploration of the mechanisms driving species richness has focused, almost exclusively, on above-ground plant and animal communities, and nearly 35 years later we have several new hypotheses but are not much closer to revealing why soils are so rich in species. One persistent but untested hypothesis is that species richness is promoted by small-scale environmental heterogeneity.

Methodology/Principal Findings: To test this hypothesis we manipulated small-scale heterogeneity in soil properties in a one-year field experiment and investigated the impacts on the richness of soil fauna and evenness of the microbial communities. We found that heterogeneity substantially increased the species richness of oribatid mites, collembolans and nematodes, whereas heterogeneity had no direct influence on the evenness of either the fungal, bacterial or archaeal communities or on species richness of the large and mobile mesostigmatid mites. These results suggest that the heterogeneity-species richness relationship is scale dependent.

Conclusions: Our results provide direct evidence for the hypothesis that small-scale heterogeneity in soils increase species richness of intermediate-sized soil fauna. The concordance of mechanisms between above and belowground communities suggests that the relationship between environmental heterogeneity and species richness may be a general property of ecological communities.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere11567
Number of pages6
JournalPloS ONE
Issue number7
Publication statusPublished - 13 Jul 2010


  • fragment-length-polymorphism
  • oribatid mites acari
  • geomorphological heterogeneity
  • microbial community
  • heather moorland
  • biodiversity
  • complexity
  • woodland
  • habitat
  • birch


Dive into the research topics of 'The enigma of soil animal species diversity revisited: the role of small-scale heterogeneity'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this