While most people know the aboveground part of forest ecosystems, very few have caught a glimpse of the belowground environment that comprises a highly diverse fauna. The number of species co-occurring on less than a square meter habitat ground (or a cubic meter of habitat volume) exceeds that of the aboveground compartment by far. In consequence, forest soil communities have been called “poor man’s rainforest”. Nevertheless, we still do not know much about the animals living in these “next-door” habitats and the structure of their communities.
Why is our knowledge about forest soil communities so limited? Progress in our understanding of soil communities and processes has been hampered by the chronic lack of data for complex soil food webs of high resolution. This is caused by aggregation of populations in coarse functional groups, whose species often span multiple trophic levels from primary to secondary or tertiary predators. In addition, soil is an opaque medium leading to a limited visibility of interactions. Further, detritivores typically ingest a multitude of intermingled resources hampering identification of what the animals actually digest and live on. In the recent years, new molecular methods have emerged providing the possibility to unravel belowground interactions and the complex structure of forest soil food webs.
The special issue “Into darkness” comprises several studies of central European beech forest soil communities. The studies included in this special feature fill employ state-of-the-art methods to unravel general feeding guilds by stable isotopes (Klarner et al.) as well as specific directed feeding interactions by molecular gut content and fatty-acid analyses (Ferlian and Scheu, Günther et al., Heidemann et al.). This allowed the construction of the first highly-resolved complex soil food webs (Digel et al.) and analyses how they respond to external drivers such as the nutrient stoichiometry of the basal litter (Ott et al.) and climate change (Lang et al.). Together, they provide a unique impression of a voyage into darkness.
Ulrich Brose, Editor of the Oikos Issue “Into Darkness”