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Studying Living Organisms and their Environment

Observable Characteristics of Organisms

Organisms can be grouped or classified according to their colour, texture, appendages and means of locomotion, shape, size and behaviour. Keys are used for these classification (recall: dichotomous keys, spider and number keys)

Some definitions

Biotic factors are the living components of an ecosystem that have an influence on an organism living in it. Abiotic, or physical, factors are the non-living components of an ecosystem that have an influence on an organism living in it.

Environment - The sum of all external conditions affecting the life, development and survival of an organism. Habitat the location where an organism can be found/where it lives.

Population a group of organisms of the same species living in the same habitat Community a collection of various species living in the same habitat

The Soil
The major importance of soil relates to its function in providing nutrients and a support medium for green plants. Soil has 4 major components:
Mineral fraction; small rock particles and mineral salts Organic matter; remains of living organisms and their products Water Air

The Soil
The soil is also a habitat to a host of microorganisms and small animals such as earthworms and beetle larvae. These too are considered part of the soil. Each of the components contribute to the characteristics of a soil.

Soil breakdown

Soil is important because

it provides a medium for plant growth it provides green plants with water and mineral salts for photosynthesis it provides food and shelter for a large range of organisms that live both in and on it.

Soil food web

Major Components of soil

Mineral Fraction
The bulk of the soil is made up of rock particles of varying sizes. These are the result of weathering, which causes the rock to break into smaller particles. These particles give the soil its texture, and therefore many of its properties. Particle size may be fine (clay), to coarse (sand) to even larger particles (gravel).

Particle sizes classification

Type of mineral particle Gravel Sand silt Clay

Size range Larger than 2.0mm 0.02 2.0 mm 0.002 0.02mm Less than 0.002 mm

Types of soil
Soil can be classified in many ways. How it was formed (alluvial or sedentary) Depth it is found at (top soil or sub soil) Its composition (loam, clay, sand)

Mineral Fraction
The mineral fraction gives the soil its structure and is important for anchoring plants as well as providing some mineral elements. The mineral salts in the soil are also inorganic. They provide plants with compounds such as nitrates which are essential.

Soil composition by particle size

Organic Matter
The organic fraction of the soil is derived from dead and decaying remains of plants and animals as well as their waste products. When these materials are fully decomposed and no longer recognizable, it is called humus. The breakdown of humus by soil microbes releases minerals that plants require.

Organic Matter
Humus also helps to hold clumps of inorganic particles in soil together to form crumbs. Crumb structure affects the physical properties of the soil. A good crumb structure improves aeration and drainage as well as water holding capacity.

Water Content

Water Content
It is important for soil to have a fair amount of water, since plants require a constant uptake of water. Water is important for support, as a medium for the uptake of and transport of mineral salts and manufactured food. Water takes part in many metabolic processes such as photosynthesis and helps to cool the plants in transpiration.

Water Content
The soil needs to be able to hold enough water for these purposes, but at the same time water must not be allowed to clog up the air spaces (water-logging). A good soil for plants is one which retains sufficient water and also drains readily. Whether a particular soil type meets these requirements depends on its crumb structure.

Air content

Air in the Soil

An important constituent of soil is air since it provides oxygen for all the living organisms including the roots of plants which are anchored in it. Oxygen is needed for respiration during which energy is released from food molecules to do work. The size of air spaces, and hence the air content of a soil, is directly related to particle size.

Air in the Soil

Small particles pack more tightly together and leave little space for air. Soils depend on aerobic bacteria to break down organic molecules to inorganic ones which provide plants with minerals. Water-logged soils that lack air are poor in nutrients.

Soil Organisms
Numerous organisms inhabit the soil. They depend on it for shelter and nutrients. Certain animals such as beetles, ants and earthworms tunnel through the soil and by their mode of feeding help to mix the soil with useful organic material and create passages that aerate the soil and improve its drainage.

Soil Organisms
Their excreta helps to add nutrients to the soil as well. Micro-organisms living in the soil break down the humus and the dead organic matter from which it originates making the nutrients available to plants.

Investigating soil properties

Three important soil properties can be investigated, these are:
Air content Water content Water-holding capacity Humus content Refer to handout

Air content
To find out what percentage of a soil is made up of air, a known volume of soil is mixed with a known volume of water It is assumed that the air in the soil will be displaced by the water The difference between the final volume of the and the sum of the two volumes of soil and water is assumed to be equal to the air displaced

Air Content
A major source of error in this investigation is the treatment of the soil If the soil is pulverized or ground before the investigation, the soil will hold les air than normal Large pebbles and stones ought to be removed from the samples and the very large pieces of soil broken up but there should be no further treatment

Water Content
Water in soil is held primarily around the soil particles and in the spaces between them The water content is usually expressed as a percentage of the total mass of the soil. A known volume of soil is dried to a constant weight in an oven and the weight loss is used to calculate the percentage water content

Water Content
The temperature of the oven must not exceed 105 degrees Celsius as the organic matter may begin to burn The weight loss will include the loss of organic matter and be inaccurate If an oven is not present, the sample can be air-dried to a constant weight over a long period of time However, the film around the soil particles will still be present but can still be used to compare different types of soil

Water-holding capacity
For a particular volume of soil, the water-holding capacity refers to the amount of water the soil will retain or hold on to after it has been supplied with water and allowed to drain A known volume of water is added, when the water stops dripping, the soil will be at capacity This capacity can be measured by comparing the volume of water added to the soil with the volume drained through.

Use of Natural and Artificial Fertilizers

Soil may lose the ability to provide nutrients and support plants and other organisms because of erosion and leaching or overuse Erosion refers to the physical removal of the exposed top soil by wind and rain Leaching is the washing away of suluble salts from the soil The soil becomes deficient in mineral utrients and unable to support plant growth

Use of natural and artificial fertilizers in soils

Erosion and leaching are caused by activities such as
Deforestation Poor farming methods Overgrazing These all result in the loss of humus from the soil.

Use of natural and artificial fertilizers in soil

Loss of humus reduces the crumb structure of the soil and accelerates erosion A particular problem is caused by modern agricultural practices Intensive agriculture uses up soil nutrients rapidly and since the crops are harvested they do not get a chance to die, rot and replenish the soil The soil becomes poor in humus

Natural Fertilizers
Adding compost or manure to the soil is one way to replace humus and eventually, mineral nutrients There are other advantages to using natural fertilizers They will improve soil structure by improving the crumb of the soil Drainage and aeration improve as a result In addition, manure will also add micro-organisms to the soil They also tend to be non-polluting

Natural fertilizers
Some of the disadvantages using natural fertilizers is that it is bulky, time consuming and difficult to spread and it is not available in large enough quantities to satisfy the demands of large scale agriculture In addition, the nutrients are not readily available It takes time for it to break down

Artificial fertilizers
These are often used in place of natural fertilizers, especially in large farming areas because they provide a ready supply of important nutrients They are relatively inexpensive and fast acting They are concentrated compounds of the major mineral elements found in the soil They usually contain varying proportions of nitrate, phosphate and potassium

Artificial fertilizers
BUT they must be used with care They should preferably be combined with a program to resupply the soil with organic humus Exclusive use of chemicals leads to the loss of microorganisms which die when the soil water becomes too concentrated The humus content then decreases, which in turn results in the deterioration of the soils crumb structure and porosity.

Artificial fertilizers
Plant effects are obvious Less obvious but also hazardous to the balance of the ecosystem is the overfertilization or eutrophication of lakes and rivers This results in when unabsorbed nitrates and other minerals are washed by rain from soil, eventually entering the water system

Artificial fertilizers
Algae are richly nourished and grow excessively They then die and decompose Decomposers require oxygen The oxygen supply in the water is depleted to such an extent that there is not enough oxygen left for other aquatic life

Artificial fertilizers
Together with semi-decomposed organic remains of algae they help form a foul mud Rivers and lakes may have an ordinary surface appearance but beneath that surface they may be at hazard of dying

The Eutrophication Process


Fertilizers and pH
Sometimes soils become too acidic Since most plants flourish in soils that have a pH that is about neutral, it is desirable to increase the pH of acidic soils Calcium oxide (lime), calcium carbonate or calcium hydroxide are usually added to acid soils to increase pH This has three side benefits
It adds minerals It improves granule structure (drainage of soil) It stimulates the growth of useful nitrogen-fixing bacteria and decomposers