Most everyone has heard that old saying that the more we learn about something, the more we realize how little we really know. I was thinking about that the other day when I read an article that stated that there may be as many as six million species of fungi on earth. The textbook I use in my botany class states that over 100,000 species of fungi have been described so far. If that estimate proves true, some quick math tells us that we have only described about two percent of all the species of fungi on earth.
One would think that by 2014 we would have described most of the species on our planet. But that is not the case: So why not? Well, a career of studying fungi doesn’t get too many people excited. Not many among us will even choose a career in biology, much less become a mycologist, or fungi specialist. With the exception of studying fungal diseases, career opportunities are probably limited. Plus studying some of these fungi is difficult. So our knowledge of fungi grows rather slowly.
I suspect that most people don’t get too excited about soil either. Most people probably think of soil as lifeless “dirt” with some water and nutrients for plant and crop growth. But soil is very much alive! There is a whole “soil ecosystem” down there. And that soil ecosystem is composed of an amazingly diverse and complex mix of organisms, both macroscopic and microscopic. Plus, those soil ecosystems are complex in their structure, function, and dynamics.
A recent study of forested soils in Alaska documented around 1,000 different species of fungi. Surprisingly the fungi occurred in highly structured soil communities that reflected differences in soils texture, pH, horizons, and of course the plant communities occupying the soil. They found seventeen species of fungus for every plant species, or a fungus to plant ratio of 17:1.
Soil has been studied to various degrees, but our understanding of how living organisms influence soil dynamics, particularly the microscopic organisms, is not particularly well understood. We know differences in vegetation are significant. The soil that forms under grassland for example is very different than soil formed under coniferous forest. But the microorganisms in the soil may be much more important than we realize. Hopefully there will be some young budding scientists out there that will get excited about soil microbiota so we can better understand what is going on down there.
Natural North Dakota is supported by NDSU Central Grasslands Research Extension Center and Minot State University-Bottineau, and by the members of Prairie Public. Thanks to Sunny 101.9 in Bottineau for their recording services.