Research Matters

Research Matters

Soil Dwellers

Jon Smith, assistant scientist with the Kansas Geological Survey, based at KU, and Stephen Hasiotis, KU associate professor of geology, have demonstrated that soil-inhabiting creatures contracted in size by 30 percent to 46 percent during the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum. The PETM was a short interval 55 million years ago marked by a spike in the atmosphere's C02 levels and global temperatures, conditions being repeated on Earth now.

Aired October 11, 2009

2 minutes 3.7 MB) | Download mp3


Climate change might cause worms, beetles, cicadas and other soil-dwellers to grow smaller over time. From the University of Kansas, this is Research Matters. I'm Brendan Lynch.

Geologists Jon Smith and Stephen Hasiotis have shown that 55 million years ago, soil-inhabiting creatures contracted in size by nearly half during a spike in atmospheric carbon dioxide and global temperatures. Hasiotis said the researchers were surprised by their own findings.

Hasiotis: We thought that there would either be no change, because the animals would be protected because they're underground, or there would be minimal and protracted change because of sop much of a buffering or there would be some sort of a delayed change.

The researchers dug trenches then searched the soil for specific geometric shapes indicating ancient nests, cocoons and burrows left behind from the P-E-T-M, the prehistoric global warming event that mirrored our own. Jon Smith.

Smith: We'd measure the diameter and then compared like trace fossils -so, in other words, fossils that occurred before the PETM event, within the event, and after the event. Then I'd look for changes in those diameters through time and surprised to find that they were in fact smaller through the PETM."

The research could foreshadow changes in biology that may result because of the planet's current jump in C02 concentrations and temperatures - what's more, Smith says the biological changes could impact humanity's ability to grow food.

Smith: There can be cascading effects that ripple through an ecosystem when you change just one aspect. It's when these things start tinkering with the organisms that are actually controlling and participating and controlling our nutrient cycling - we could be changing soil conditions over vast portions of the world and affecting the soil organisms themselves.

For more about climate change and soil-dwellers, log onto Research Matters dot K-U dot E-D-U. For the University of Kansas, I'm Brendan Lynch.

Tell Me More

Dwarfism and Climate

Tell me more