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The soil food web is a complex system of organisms that satisfy many functions. While we may not know it, the
earth beneath our feet is teeming with life. This system is dynamic, cyclical and essential to health of ecosystems
worldwide. The goal of this document is to provide a brief overview of the soil food web and its key organisms.
By the end of this document, you should be able to identify these organisms and their respective purposes.

Bacteria provide a fundamental backbone to all forms of life

within the soil; in fact, they are vital to the health of any soil. Mutualist rhizombium bacteria form
Bacteria fulfill a wide range of functions within this nodules on roots.
community. The three most common types of bacteria are
decomposers, mutualists and lithotrophs,
 Decomposers break down organic matter into simple forms.
These simple compounds, in turn provide nutrition for other
 Mutualists form partnerships with plants. A common
mutualist is a nitrogen fixing bacteria. These bacteria
colonize plant roots and pull nitrogen from the surrounding
area to feed the plant (Figure 1).
 Lithotrophs (or chemoautotrophs) collect energy from
carbon-less molecules. These bacteria are useful for Figure 1: "Rhizobia nodules on Vigna unguiculata.jpg"
metabolizing other elements. This aids the breakdown of by Dave Whitinger is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

Fungi provide critical infrastructure and hold soils together. We may be familiar Hyphae “mine” soils for
with mushrooms; however, these are merely the fruit of the organism. There is
more at play beneath the soil’s surface. Fungal hyphae are strands of fungal
tissue as wide as a single hair. They help bind soils together, retain water and
transport nutrients from parent materials, like sand, silts and clay (Figure 2).
Fungi fall into three categories: decomposers, mutualists and pathogens.
 Decomposers or saprophytic fungi, work like their bacterial counterparts.
These fungi break down wood and carbon rich structures.
 Mutualists unite with plant roots and are referred to as mycorrhizal fungi.
Plants exchange carbon and sugars for phosphorus, nitrogen and other hard
to reach nutrients and mycorrhizal fungi deliver these nutrients from soil
Figure 2: "Hyphae.JPG" by
directly to the plant’s roots.
TheAlphaWolf is licensed under
 Pathogens spread diseases to organisms. Plants can be affected by CC BY-SA 4.0
pathogens but pathogens help regulate populations.


Protozoa roam soils and

create fertility. Protozoa are key players in the food web. They are single celled organisms
and cannot be seen by the naked eye (figure 3).

These organisms provide nourishment for larger predators but play a critical
role in maintaining populations of bacteria, fungi and other protozoa.
Protozoa increase ammonium levels for plant consumption as a byproduct
of feeding. Three distinct types of protozoa have been identified as ciliates,
flagellates and amoebae:

• Ciliates are the largest protozoa. They feed on bacteria and other
protozoa. Ciliates use hairs to maneuver themselves around.
• Flagellates propel themselves with a tail. They consume bacteria
and release nitrogen compounds into the surrounding earth.
Figure 3: "Stylonychia
putrina" by Picturepest is
• Amoebae prey on fungi and cycle nutrients by excreting waste.
licensed under CC BY-SA

Predatory nematodes indicate a

Nematodes are microscopic worm-like organisms that adjust productive system.
populations of smaller organisms (Figure 4).

Nematodes can get a bad reputation but they are important in

restraining populations of other organisms. They feed on bacteria,
fungi, protozoa, roots and other nematodes. While feeding,
nematodes release plant available nutrients like ammonium.

Predatory nematodes indicate an abundance of life forms and a

healthy soil food web.
Figure 4: "A juvenile root-knot nematode
(Meloidogyne incognita) penetrates a
tomato root - USDA-ARS" by William
Wergin and Richard Sayre is licensed under
CC BY 2.0

Sow or “potato” bugs are common Arthropods are the largest creatures moving freely in the soil. We
arthropods. can see them without magnification (Figure 5). An arthropod’s diet
consists of fungi, roots, worms or other arthropods.
Common arthropods include:
• millipedes
• scorpions
• sow or “potato” bugs
They shuffle material and create passageways for air and water.
Arthropods also excrete nutrients after feeding. These creatures then
Figure 5: "Roll E Pole E" by Frank Boston is
become a food source for birds, rodents and frogs.
licensed under CC BY 2.0

The Soil Food Web is cyclical, thus integral to all life on earth.
Plants are considered to be near the top of the
soil food web. After all, the plant is the part we
can see (Figure 6). While plants benefit from
the unseen workers, they also contribute to the
process. When a plant’s needs are not being
met they release root exudates.

Exudates are simple sugars, proteins or

carbohydrates. These are excellent food sources
for bacteria and fungi. Nutrients are provided
by these bacteria and fungi in exchange for
exudates. By this process, both party’s needs
are met. Rodale Institute’s chief scientist, Dr.
Elaine Ingham, calls this phenomenon a
“positive feedback loop.”i

Plants also contribute decaying organic matter

in the form of leaves, wood and root dieback.
This debris provides food and shelter for all the
smaller creatures. These relationships allow us
to predict conditions and deficiencies below Figure 6: "The Soil Food Web" by Natural Resources Conservation
ground without the need to disturb the soil. Service Soils United States Department of Agriculture is in the Public

Though it may be easy to overlook, the biodiversity of our planet’s soils is enormous. Populations of hard-
working organisms on the ground level allow us to produce nutritious foods, capture and store carbon, as well as
enjoy healthy forests and wildlife. This system is dynamic, cyclical and universal. It is integral to all life on

If you have further questions refer to the additional sources section to find more comprehensive information.

For additional reading please consider these sources:

Cloutier, Jill and Ingham, Dr. Elaine. "The Universe Beneath Our Feet: The Soil Food Web." Sustainable World Radio:
Ecology & Permaculture Podcast. Sustainable World Radio, 8 Apr. 2016. Web. 11 Apr. 2016.