Atlant’s Column: From Mouth to Mouth

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Welcome to the section on which explores, analyzes and explains fascinating microscopical structures.

Mammalian Adipose Tissue - Fat CellsA good harvest depends not only on the skill of the farmer, but also of many tiny helpers who live in the cracks of the soil and provide nutrients for our crops.

Text by science writer Atlant Bieri
Photography by Martin Oeggerli

This is the most powerful snout of the world. Because even though it is only a few micrometres wide, it ensures that our crops thrive. It belongs to a springtail. This is an invertebrate closely related to insects. It occurs all over the world. Springtails inhabit both farmlands, and the leaf litter of tropical rainforests. They thrive in the Antarctic as well as in the sunburnt outback of Australia. Their habitat ranges down to 150 centimetres deep into the ground. There they inhabit the tiny cavities in the soil and they produce something of the utmost importance for food and agriculture: shit.

Springtails are some sort of underground cows. With their snout they consume dead plant parts such as the remains of leaves, stems or roots. These are full of nutrients like nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus. It is a vast reservoir of precious fertilizer to plants. However, it is inaccessible for them because plants cannot digest themselves.
For this, they need the springtails. They eat constantly through the pile of vegetable rubble. Their stomach breaks down the cellulose from leaves and stems. The result of this activity is faeces and urine. Of course, one single springtail is not getting very far with this matter. But it is not alone. Every cubic meter of soil harbours up to one million of these animals. Researchers have discovered soils, which consist only of springtail faecal pellets. The advantage for the plants: the nutrients in the manure are readily absorbed from the roots.


Fly proboscisFungus Gardener

The snout of springtails is also a garden tool to trim mycelia. Fungi in the soil are busy digesting dead plant material as well and convert it into nutrients. They even make a contract with the plants. The fungi provide nutrients through their fine threads of mycelia, which they attach directly to the roots of the plants. In return they get paid with energy rich sugary sap.

But fungi are somewhat sluggish and their performance constantly lags behind the needs of the plants. The snout of springtails changes all that as it grazes a portion of the hyphae. They are made of a tough material called chitin, but the stomach of springtails can cope with it. This threat rips the fungi out of their lethargy. They accelerate their growth to compensate for the destruction caused by the snout. As a consequence, more hyphae dock to the plant roots and provide them with more nutrients.

Life underground is dangerous. Springtails are the favourite meal for predators such as mites and pseudo scorpions. To get away from them, they possess a kind of spring under their abdomen, their “springtail”. It can be moved like a folding knife in a fraction of a second. The force hurls the animal several centimetres away, provided there is enough space

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Continue reading Atlant’s Column: Fat Buddies, June 2013, or go back to the archive