Field Day

DSC00304Today we started our class in a different building, which we actually found without trouble. At first we thought it was a NATO base due to the security and the, uh, jet airplane sitting behind the building. We made it on time though, thank goodness, despite having stopped at McDonald’s (yup) for coffee.

First we had some lecture with a new professor, who admitted being better with Russian than with English. The lecture was “soil fauna”, so we talked about bacteria, springtails (Collembola), and mites (Acari). Mostly mites. This university has a research program studying soil mites, and we got to see how they do it. First we looked at some prepared slides and some soil “stamps” we got from the front yard. Then we were led to the basement where the mites are collected from research samples. They are hung upside-down in a warm room over funnels. The mites go down to the funnel, which directs them to vials of alcohol, where they are preserved. Cool stuff. It seems obscure, but consider this: A full quarter of all species on Earth lives in the soil.

After lecture, lab, and lunch, we got in cars and traveled to Lesnictwo Biale Blota forest nursery and park. Thanks to Robert for remembering the name of the place. They grow the trees in rows like corn! We got a nice tour from two women who spoke no English. Thank goodness for Catherine again- I swear she should not be paying for a single thing on this trip. We saw the greenhouses, irrigation reservoir, the fields with the baby trees, and a collection of historic farm implements (which Taylor knew all the names of). They grow many different species of forest and ornamental trees. They aggressively manage the soil to avoid contamination and ensure optimal pH and other soil conditions. They also inoculate the trees with mycorrhizal fungi, which is a symbiotic relationship that helps the trees acquire nutrients.

We then went for a walk on a lovely interpretive trail through the forest. It so reminded me of my home in Maine! Many of the same trees are here, different species but same genus. Birch, oak, pine, ash, larch, hornbeam, spruce, cedar. We also saw a deer, probably a roebuck. I found we could communicate a bit with our guides using the Latin names of the trees and animals.

We encountered a clearing in the forest, where we stopped and dug the soil a little. It was awesome to see a forest soil after my time in Texas. We discussed the organic layer and gave out the mnemonic device soil students use to remember the names of the different layers- it was cool to see the light bulb come on for students who had been bored stiff in the lab. We talked about the processes of organic matter and iron/aluminum translocation. Why didn’t I realize the organic matter chelates the iron and aluminum, which is why they travel together? Duh.

In the picture you can see a tiny, faint E horizon, a gray layer between the dark and the light brown. This is where all the material has been stripped off the sand grains. We looked at it under Dr. McGahan’s hand lens and saw the clear quartz, like glass beads. The material is then deposited lower in the profile in spots, which we saw after digging deeper. Also in the picture you can almost see the process of litter decomposition in the top layer. It starts as fresh plant material, then as you look deeper, it becomes more and more decomposed until it is just brown gunk. To tie it all together, the mites, springtails, nematodes, and bacteria in the soil are what accomplishes this. The bigger organisms chew, rip, and shred, making smaller pieces with more surface area for the bacteria to colonize. They are overlooked little things, but the soil microorganisms are essential to all other terrestrial life.

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