Fundamentals of Soil Ecology. 2nd ed. David C. Coleman, D. A. Crossley Jr., and Paul F. Hendrix. Elsevier, London, 2004. 408 pp. $49.95 (ISBN 9264105549 paper).
Throughout history, little has mattered more to humans than their relations with soil. Indeed, the fertility of soil has provided the basis for many ancient civilizations, whereas its abuse through inappropriate farming methods has led to the decline of others. Given the importance of soil to humans, it is surprising that so little is known about its ecology, relative to what is known about above-ground communities. This, however, is changing. The last decade has seen an explosion of interest in soils and their ecology, driven largely by curiosity about the vast diversity of organisms that live in soil and by a growing recognition among terrestrial ecologists of the importance of soil and its inhabitants to ecosystem structure and function. The authors of this book have, for many years, been at the forefront of the discipline of soil ecology. Indeed, their collective work has contributed significantly to the understanding of the underground world and has helped fuel the growing interest in this field of exploration.
Against this background comes the second edition of Fundamentals of Soil Ecology, a revised version of the already successful first edition, which has been widely adopted as the basic textbook in this area. The new book, however, reflects the rapid development of the subject over the intervening eight years, especially in relation to a growing understanding of the biological function of microbes and the importance of food web interactions and species diversity in soil. The new edition also reflects recent technological developments in soil ecology that have revealed new reservoirs of diversity and helped deepen our understanding of soil.
The book has nine chapters. Chapter 1 provides a brief historical perspective of soil ecology and describes the physical nature of the soil habitat. This chapter is important because understanding the community structure and activity of soil biota first requires an appreciation of the nature of the soil matrix in which they live. The three chapters that follow introduce the main players in the soil food web. These chapters take the reader on a journey from the primary producers, which fuel the soil food web, to the microbes and fauna that depend on them. The text is richly illustrated and effectively blends information on the biology of individual groups of organisms with an understanding of the factors that control their distribution. Methods for studying primary producers and components of the soil biota are discussed as well.
Chapters 5 and 6 examine soil food web interactions and their significance for the generalized ecosystem processes of decomposition and nutrient cycling. Within these two chapters is one of the more important messages of the book: Researchers need to take a holistic perspective to understand the roles of soil biota in driving ecosystem processes because, as the authors emphasize, decomposition and nutrient cycling are expressions of the activities of the entire soil fauna and its interactions with microbes. The importance of this point cannot be stressed enough.
New to the second edition is chapter 7, “Soil Biodiversity and Linkages to Soil Processes,” which reflects the rapid development of this area of investigation in recent years. In this chapter the authors not only provide new insights into the diversity of soil communities but also critically review recent studies that have explored links between soil biological diversity and ecosystem properties. The authors also explore the problems ecologists face when trying to interpret data from these difficult studies. Chapter 8 considers future developments in soil ecology, focusing mainly on soil carbon dynamics and global change, and the final chapter provides guidelines for those interested in pursuing practical, hands-on studies in soil ecology.
This book provides an excellent introduction to the field of soil ecology and is essential reading for any student or researcher with interest in the below-ground world and the functioning of terrestrial ecosystems. Indeed, it has all the traits of an excellent textbook: It is well written, richly illustrated, informative, thought provoking, and well supported by a comprehensive and up-to-date literature base. What is unique about the book, in my view, is that it takes a truly holistic perspective to the study of soil ecology, highlighting the importance of the food web approach—emphasizing the central role of trophic interactions—and the role of soil as the organizing center for terrestrial ecosystems. The lead author and his coworkers are pioneers of this approach to soil ecology, and this book exemplifies their contribution to this field. I recommend this book strongly.