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Life Under The Ground

An I Love Soil Educational Resource

New Zealand is home to some delightfully different animals. Most of us are familiar with the flightless kiwi, the giant weta and the ancient tuatara.

New Zealand has other less well known, but equally unusual animals like glow-in-dark earthworms and the ‘invertebrate living fossil’ – the peripatus. Perhaps if you’ve not heard of these two, it’s because they live underground or in leaf litter on the surface so we don’t often see them. Look a little closer and you’ll be surprised at the world living beneath your feet.


Microbes living in the soil

Soil – Alive or Dead?


Agriculture is hugely important to the New Zealand economy. We raise cattle for dairy and meat, sheep, deer, poultry, pigs and goats. Farmers grow grain, vegetable and fruit crops. Vintners produce wine. Forestry provides timber and building materials. Even our fisheries have a connection to the soil. All up, our primary industries are directly or indirectly responsible for about 3/4 of our export earnings.

Take a step away from the land and move to the cities and towns. There is an army of workers to support those who produce our food and fibre – from the people who work in sawmills, freezing works and dairy factories, to those who supply equipment, provide transport or give advice.


Organisms live on top of the soil...

Soil Is a Habitat


A habitat is a specific area in which an organism lives. Around 25% of everything alive on Earth uses soil as a habitat – in which the soil provides food and shelter. Organisms live both on top of the soil (in leaf litter or other organic matter) or below the surface. Some things live in soil for their entire lives while other creatures live in soil for just a part of it.

A soil habitat can be a pretty complicated place. The characteristics of soil (for example, its texture and chemistry), temperature and rainfall influence the type of plants and animals that live in the soil. These living things depend on each other and on the non-living components like organic matter, minerals, air and water to survive.


...or just underneath the surface

New Zealand Native Soil Habitats


New Zealand native forests tend to be humid places that do not experience big temperature extremes. The forests may lack the animal diversity of other rainforests around the world, but there is a lot going on under the ground. Believe it or not, the weight of earthworms under our native forests is greater than all of the other animals living in the forest!

Earthworms aren’t the only creatures on the forest floor – the leaf litter may hold hundreds of species of invertebrates. Earthworms, invertebrates and microscopic organisms break down the fallen leaves and wood to recycle nutrients and favourably influence soil properties.

Other native areas, like tussock grasslands, alpine shrublands and coastal areas will have their own soil ecosystems. Anywhere there is soil; there will be a soil habitat.


A compost bin is a good soil habitat

Urban & Other Habitats


The lawns and gardens around our houses, schools and businesses are home to all kinds of soil life, but we have to look to see it. Dig a hole, spread the soil out on a piece of newspaper and take some time to see what you can find.

You can even create a soil habitat where none existed by building a compost system. Add a spadeful of soil or two to an empty bin and add food scraps or grass clippings on a regular basis. It won’t take long before the compost bin is home to insects, earthworms and microscopic creatures.


Insect exoskeletons

Life Above The Ground Depends On Life Below The Ground


It’s just as well that soil organisms break down and recycle plant and animal wastes. Consider just one type of waste – insect exoskeletons. If these were never recycled, we’d be knee-deep in insect body parts. Now think about all the leaves that fall, cow dung deposited, potatoes that get peeled and teabags we use. Life above ground wouldn’t exist without the help of life below the ground!

Activity Ideas

The activities Soil Microbes and Soil Animals are simple, visual, hands-on experiences to explore life under the ground.


Dig Deeper

Learn more about what live in soil by visiting the Science Learning Hub’s Earthworms, Te Ara’s Earthworms and Massey University’s Soilbugs.

Other Resources in the I Love Soil Series

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