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Periodic Report Summary 1 - SENSE (Structure and Ecological Niche in the Soil Environment)

SENSE (Structure and Ecological Niche in the Soil Environment) aims to discover the process affecting soil animal diversity and how soil biodiversity affects ecosystem stability and function. The project has three main objective: i) to investigate niche partitioning processes in soil microarthropods using stable isotopes and phylogenetics; ii) testing whether species coexistence can be explained by the architectural complexity of the environment and body size distribution; iii) to study the diversity–stability relationship in soil food webs by formulating and analysing cutting edge models.
A key goal is also the establishment of a research group, which aims to be internationally recognised by the broader scientific community for the quality of science, technological tools and facilities. The project is at the end of year 2 and it has so far delivered 5 publications covering the three objectives. With regards to objective 1 and 2, a general result is that assemblages such as oribatid mites seem regulated by a combination of environmental filtering and more stochastic dynamics, with little evidence of negative interspecific interactions. Also, the set of multitrophic interactions within which the dynamics of specific assemblage is embedded appears to be a major driver of community structure. Another important result is that at the time the proposal was written, there was an assumption that soil structure was an independent driver of microarthopods community structure. We now have evidence that soil arthropods and soil structure affect each other dynamically, with the effect of arthropods on soil structure too much underestimated in the past. We have also investigated the effect of arbuscular mychorrizal fungi on soil structure over time, which was done in an attempt to make SENSE including the idea that soil biota is actually driving the process of soil structure formation.
The financial resources provided by the grant have boosted the PI career significantly: i) a state-of-the-art laboratory has been set up, with excellent equipment for the processing of soil arthropods, nematodes and mycorrhizal fungi (e.g., extraction tools, microscopy facilities); ii) thanks to that, the PI has secured significant funding (>£400.000) from Royal Society of London grant, NERC (Natural and Environmental Research Council, UK) and the Leverhulme Trust (UK); the PI has also been successful in recruiting 3 doctoral students locally funded (DAERA and Department of Education in Norther Ireland), one post doctoral researcher (funded by NERC), and the post doctoral researcher funded by SENSE. Finally, the integration goal of the project was achieved: the PI has been confirmed in post on a permanent basis in December 2015.
In the next two years, the key aim is to deliver top quality research output. Delivering on objective 3 of the grant seems the most promising path. In June 2015, a workshop was organised in Belfast to gather some of the most important soil ecologists from USA, UK, Germany, the Netherlands, Canada, and Estonia, and develop cutting edge soil food web models.

Reported by

United Kingdom


Life Sciences
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