“…if all the matter in the universe except the nematodes were swept away, our world would still be dimly recognizable, and if, as disembodied spirits, we could then investigate it, we should find its mountains, hills, vales, rivers, lakes, and oceans represented by a film of nematodes…” (Cobb 1914)
He may have said it more than a century ago but we now, more than ever, realise that Nathan Augustus Cobb was right. Nematodes are by far the most abundant animals soil, freshwater and marine ecosystems. These tiny worms are barely visible to the human eye (if they’re visible at all), hundreds can inhabit a single gram of soil . Their similar shape might lead you to think that they’re all alike, but that’s not the case. More than 25,000 species have been identified and estimates put their entire species diversity in the 100,000s.
Some common nematode species found in most soils. a) Plectus sp, b) Aphelenchus sp, c) Helicotylenchus sp, d) Thonus sp, e) Mononchus sp. © Wageningen University, Laboratory of Nematology, NL; Hanny van Megen
This taxonomic and functional diversity has boosted nematodes to become useful bioindicators for soil quality. Nematodes perform many different functions in both terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems. These are mainly defined by what they eat:
- Bacteria/Fungi: Many nematode groups eat bacteria and fungi. They control the population of these organisms and keep them active.
- Plants: Plant feeders are the unwanted guests in agricultural systems as well as in our gardens. They can destroy entire harvests by piercing into or infiltrating roots.
- Omnivores/Predators: Many nematode species prey on other smaller organisms including smaller nematodes and control their abundances.
- Parasites: These species inhabit other larger organisms and can act as biocontrol agents.