Photographer captures beauty of tiny creatures that keep soil healthy

Photographer captures beauty of tiny creatures that keep soil healthy

It seems incredible, but half the world’s animals live in the soil, and ecologist Frank Ashwood has been photographing them. 

Key points:

  • The biodiversity in the soil is largely unknown despite being prolific
  • UK soil ecologist Frank Ashwood visited Australian farms to capture life in the soil
  • Farmers are learning more about the link between biodiversity in the soil and producing healthy food

Based in the United Kingdom, Mr Ashwood used his time during COVID lockdowns to take extraordinary close-up images of the microscopic life in the soils. 

He said it took patience and a good eye.

“A lot of these things are running over the surface of the soil, on the grass or in the crops, and some of them are very small, less than 5mm,  so you have to get on your hands and knees, be patient, part the grass and relax, let things come to you,” he said.

Mr Ashwood said he had worked in applied research on advancing forest soil sustainability, but was also a university lecturer and had done podcasts for the BBC and Grubbing in the Fields.

Potworms are miniature relatives of earthworms, named for being commonly found in plant pots.(Supplied: Frank Ashwood)

Flatworms are mainly predators of other invertebrates.(Supplied: Frank Ashwood)

He came to Australia with support from the not-for-profit regenerative agriculture group Soils For Life and visited six farms across Queensland, Western Australia, Tasmania and Victoria.

“There’s a huge diversity here, scorpions, I saw a lot of interesting predatory invertebrates, spiders, preying mantis and a lot of variety that I don’t see in the UK,” he said.

Wolf spiders are robust and agile hunters with excellent eyesight.(Supplied: Frank Ashwood)

Jumping spiders hunt during the day, using their highly developed visual system to locate prey.(Supplied: Frank Ashwood, Soils For Life)

His photographs show how intricate, varied, strange and beautiful the creatures living in the soil are.

The NSW Department of Environment estimates that a teaspoon of topsoil can hold up to six billion living creatures which help to break down organic matter, recycling nutrients and storing carbon.

Most species of carabid beetle are carnivorous and predatory.(Supplied: Frank Ashwood)

Ants collect sweet substances such as honeydew from sap-sucking insects.(Supplied: Frank Ashwood)

“That can take the form of bacteria and other microbial components, fungi, but there’s also a lot of animals living in the soil, a lot of invertebrates, like insects,” Mr Ashwood said.

“They’re really sensitive to environmental disturbance and what’s living in the soil and they can tell us a lot about the health of the soil and the wider eco system.”

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