Mapping the hidden arthropod biodiversity of UK soils using high-throughput sequencing

Common Pill Woodlouse against a white background

Armadillidium vulgare, Common Pill Woodlouse © The Trustees of the Natural History Museum, London

Soils harbour a huge diversity of species interlinked in complex ways, which determine the functioning of below and above-ground ecosystems.

Healthy soil communities provide essential services, such as nutrient recycling, water  retention and pest and disease control. Arthropods are a hugely diverse and functionally important component of the soil fauna, and can serve as sensitive indicators of soil conditions due to their high microhabitat specificity.

However, their use has been limited because of their great diversity and abundance, small body sizes, and difficulty of linking life  stages, which limits their taxonomic  identification.

Recent high-throughput sequencing (‘metabarcoding’) overcomes these limitations and will be used for  analysis of bulk  specimen samples, to generate a first map of the soil arthropods across the UK. The study builds on Natural England’s (CASE partner) Long-Term Monitoring Network  (LMMN)  sites and sample data, and will explore how soil arthropod communities reflect soil conditions, soil function and changes in management, and to contextualise wider biodiversity indicators of fundamental ecosystem functions.

The project is closely aligned to Natural England’s research priorities in long-term monitoring of soils and assessment of  ‘countryside stewardship’ options. The core study is a survey of DNA-based characterisation of soil communities in 24 designated sites at National Nature Reserves. 

These sites will serve as a broad sample of total soil arthropod diversity in the UK, a measure of regional turnover, and a test of the association of particular species or higher taxa with defined habitat types; and to establish the correlation of community composition with soil physical, chemical and functional measures already available for these sites. These distributions will further be linked to emerging maps of microbial  soil diversity, to test for joint drivers of soil processes in bacteria and higher organisms.

The student will also make use of coordinated field trials and experiments established through partners (e.g. the UK’s Catchment Sensitive Farming scheme implemented by Defra), to make detailed measures of soil function alongside samples of soil arthropods.

The project is laying the groundwork for the routine use of standardised DNA procedures for monitoring and ultimately devising metrics for the characterisation  of  ecosystems and their health. The approach will be developed together with partner  organisations interested in exploring soil communities as indicators of soil health conservation and management, and to provide agriculturally pertinent information.

NatureMetrics is working closely with the agronomy sector to implement DNA-based  monitoring of soils, in which the student will participate. Thus, the student will be trained in recent methods, while being integrated both in academic research and various applied schemes, to develop a rationale and interpretation of rapidly growing DNA data in soil biodiversity.

How to apply

Apply for this course through the Science and Solutions for a Changing Planet Doctoral Training Partnership website

The deadline for applications is 4 January 2021.

Apply for this project

Read more about the Science and Solutions for a Changing Planet Doctoral Training Partnership (SSCP DTP)

Application deadline: 4 January 2021

Any questions?

If you have any questions about the project please contact

Lead supervisor: Alfried P. Vogler


Imperial College London

Prof Thomas Bell

Dr Cris Banks-Leite


Dr Matthew Shepherd


Dr Kat Bruce

Science and Solutions for a Changing Planet (SSCP) doctoral training partnership

This is a joint project between The Science and Solutions for a Changing Planet (SSCP) Doctoral Training Partnership at Imperial College London and The Natural History Museum.

Funded by