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Life in the Soil

A Guide for Naturalists and Gardeners

Leonardo da Vinci once mused that “we know more about the movement of celestial bodies than about the soil underfoot,” an observation that is as apt today as it was five hundred years ago. The biological world under our toes is often unexplored and unappreciated, yet it teems with life. In one square meter of earth, there lives trillions of bacteria, millions of nematodes, hundreds of thousands of mites, thousands of insects and worms, and hundreds of snails and slugs. But because of their location and size, many of these creatures are as unfamiliar and bizarre to us as anything found at the bottom of the ocean.

Lavishly illustrated with nearly three hundred color illustrations and masterfully-rendered black and white drawings throughout, Life in the Soil invites naturalists and gardeners alike to dig in and discover the diverse community of creatures living in the dirt below us.  Biologist and acclaimed natural history artist James B. Nardibegins with an introduction to soil ecosystems, revealing the unseen labors of underground organisms maintaining the rich fertility of the earth as they recycle nutrients between the living and mineral worlds. He then introduces readers to a dazzling array of creatures: wolf spiders with glowing red eyes, snails with 120 rows of teeth, and 10,000-year-old fungi, among others. Organized by taxon, Life in the Soil covers everything from slime molds and roundworms to woodlice and dung beetles, as well as vertebrates from salamanders to shrews. The book ultimately explores the crucial role of soil ecosystems in conserving the worlds above and below ground.

A unique and illustrative introduction to the many unheralded creatures that inhabit our soils and shape our environment aboveground, Life in the Soil will inform and enrich the naturalist in all of us.

336 pages | 69 color plates, 229 halftones, 2 line drawings | 5 1/2 x 8 1/2 | © 2007

Biological Sciences: Botany, Natural History

Earth Sciences: General Earth Sciences



“James Nardi’s Life in the Soil is a very worthy and meaningful introduction to the soil biota and their unique ecosystem.Coverage of the living forms is comprehensive, with fine graphics showing the diversity of major taxa that inhabit soils. These illustrations provide a good basis for the in-depth understanding needed if one wishes to use more advanced, complex identification keys to study any living soil groups in more detail. In addition to basic identification values for naturalists and gardeners, teachers at all grade levels also should find this an invaluable resource book for surveying field collections of soil creatures and their ecology. Furthermore, naturalists as well as educators and their students will benefit from the descriptions and illustrations of collection and observation chambers that can be used for live animals to initiate research such as population, behavioral or life history studies. Finally, the techniques for composting provide important information on the functional roles of the decomposer microcommunities of soil biota in the actual compost production. Composting presented here as a partnership between soil organisms and humans provides a vital message  regarding waste reduction and recycling. Those who are environmentally inclined should read this book to acquire an understanding of our terrestrial ecosystem and the well being of the soils of the earth.”

Dan Dindal, editor of the Soil Biology Guide

“This is the book I’ve been waiting for! Life in the Soil is a clear, definitive guide to the fascinating underground world. James Nardi champions dung beetles and cockroaches alike; he celebrates the intricate relationships between plant roots and microscopic fungi; and he sheds light on the complexities in a pile of rotting leaves. Any gardener who has ever wondered about the mysterious creatures that turn up in a shovelful of dirt should have a copy of this book.”

Amy Stewart, author of Flower Confidential and The Earth Moved: On the Remarkable Achievements of Earthworms

"The bright yellow jelly that appeared under the tree in our front garden was a slime mould’s plasmodium, I now know, thanks to Life in the Soil. Biologist Nardi not only catalogues organisms—from algae to wombats—that live in soil, but also explains their roles in the web of life. Aimed at gardeners as well as naturalists, with a final section on DIY composting, this book uncovers the densely populated world that exists, literally, right under our feet, bringing to light countless flies and beetles, and such underground stars as termites and earthworms."

Jonathan Beard | New Scientist

“Nardi takes us deep into the engine room of soil production, exploring and describing the myriad organisms—amoebae, fungi, bacteria, arthropods, etc—that dwell there. A strange, revealing and captivating book.

Mark Cocker | The Guardian

"If the earth moves you, then this is where you’ll get all the best dirt on what lives, what dies and how everything in the soil is connected by an ever-expanding web of life. This is a book that can be read by naturalists and gardeners like a novel as the drama of the soil is churned forth, plowed through and dug into. You’ll learn about wolf spiders with glowing red eyes, snails with 120 rows of teeth, and lime molds, mites and roundworms in such a manner that they become allies in the fight to keep our earth and our soil healthy. This is a unique book written by a biologist who makes the case that life itself depends on how well we treat all those millions of creatures right under our soles."

Marianne Binetti | Seattle Post-Intelligencer

"Although most are microscopic, the trillions of species that inhabit the ground we walk on is astonishing. No book could describe them all; this one identifies larger groups: in the case of microbes we get only kingdoms, but for more complex animals, phyla, classes and even families. A very useful survey."

Gerry Rising | Buffalo News

"A missing entry in the book rack has long been a real in-depth book on the livestock in the soil. Jim Nardi has now filled that void. . . . The cast of characters in this underground drama runs into the millions. Nardi has the figures, and his book is punctuated with tables, diagrams, charts and artwork—his own art—which together make this book a most reasonable encyclopedia. Life in the Soil is published by the University of Chicago Press, price $25—actual worth, several times that much. Farmers and gardeners will walk into the light when they read this one, especially those who compost and measure life itself in terms of bio-correct growing."

ACRES USA: The Voice of Eco-Agriculture

"A must-read for anyone who wants a better understanding of this world and how to protect it."

Adrian Higgins | Washington Post

"[I strongly recommend you] to go out and get this book, not from the library but from a store. It is well worth owning. Not only did I find it a great read, but it is a reference book I will turn to often. Nardi subtitles his book A Guide for Naturalists and Gardeners. This is apt as Life in the Soil does a fantastic job of describing (often in exquisite and fascinating detail) the major players on the soil food web stage. I couldn’t put it down. OK, I admit that I am a soil nerd, and naturally this kind of work would appeal to me, but honestly, each page contains so much information presented so well that all gardeners will benefit greatly from owning it. For starters, the book is extremely well-organized. All members of the animal kingdom are represented, and each group is accompanied by a fact box that contains the scientific classification, size, common names, their place in the soil food web and their impact on gardening. If the book contained only these boxes, it would be worth it. However, Nardi is a skilled scientific illustrator as well as a biologist. Almost every page has a detailed picture of the organisms (with size reference) he is describing, often showing not only the animal but its habitat, including those it eats or those that eat it. You will surely recognize animals you have seen before but were not able to identify. . . . From the ground squirrels you see in Denali to wireworms, caterpillars and moths, flies, wasps, ants, japygids and earwigs, Life in the Soil will help you understand and identify the life in your soil. Birders have their Petersons and Sibleys. There are guides to snakes, butterflies, mammals and all sorts of other natural things. Now we gardeners have a guide to the critters that make up the soil food web."

Jeff Lowenfels | Achorange Daily News

"This very inviting book about the mysterious world beneath one’s feet—too often shunned as simply ’dirt’—is beautifully illustrated with drawings and diagrams by Nardi. . . .The book is jam-packed with kernels of knowledge, especiall in handy ’fact boxes’. . . .This scientifically up-to-date book is also enjoyable to read it will be useful as a field guide and reference. Highly recommended."


"[A] superb new book ... A splendid introduction to the world of soil. Not only does it provide an ample introduction to soils as a ’marriage of the mineral world and the organic world’ — that is, to basic soil science — it also furnishes the reader with an extensive account of the soil community, detailing organisms from kangaroo rats to microbes. . . . Crisp prose, color photos, and delightful illustrations (the author’s work) make Life in the Soil pleasingly complete without getting stuck in the mud. At approximately 300 pages, Soil can afford to dazzle as well as inform. The reader may emerge not only a more astute naturalist and steward of the soil, but also will come away with a few pleasing tidbits to share."

Liam Heneghan | Chicago Wilderness Magazine

"This delightful and insightful book tops all others we’ve read . . . on soil biology at a beginning to intermediate level. Here is science writing at its best: lucid and engaging."


"This is an invaluable popular review of the soil biota that has few other books to compete with. . . . The overall quality of production of the book is excellent and it is very good value for its price. . . . I can recommend it higly to all naturalists and it will also find a place on the bookshelve of most soil ecologists as an excellent reference."

Clive A. Edwards | Quarterly Review of Biology

"Let me just come clean . . . right off the bat: I love this book. . . . Life in the Soil is what descriptive natural history books should all be, but too few actually are. It is appropriately detailed and comprehensive, but it is also easy and fun to read. The enthusiasm of the author and his own sense of wonder come through loud and clear in both his words and his artwork."

Christopher T. Martine | Plant Science Bulletin

"This book fills an important niche missing in the soil science lexicon, that being an academic treatment of soils for a more wide ranging audience than most soil texts. . . . This book could be the missing link for introductory soils courses for nonmajors, fish and wildlife programs, soil biology courses, . . . forestry, natural resources, landscape ecology, horticulture, serious gardeners, and a general audience looking for more than the usual light treatment of soils. . . . I love this book and hope to incorporate it into my soils for non-majors class."

James Cassidy | Soil Science Society of America Journal

Table of Contents

How to Use This Book


A. Introduction
B. How Soil Forms Rocks and Weather
C. Plant Roots and Their Bacterial Partners
D. Plant Roots and Their Bacterial Partners
E. Where Roots Meet Rocks and Minerals
F. Plant Roots and Their Animal Partners
     1.  Life in a Dark Densely Populated World
     2.  Soil Fertility and the Formation of Humus
     3.  The Importance of Nitrogen
     4.  The Contribution of Animals to Soil Structure
     5.  Diggers and Thrillers of Soil
G. How Plants and Animals Affect the Layers of a Soil


A. Microbes
     1.  Eubacteria and Archaebacteria
     2.  Actinomycetes
     3.  Algae
     4.  Fungi
     5.  Chytrids, Hyphochitrids, Oomycetes
     6.  Lichens
     7.  Slime Molds
     8.  Protozoa

Animal Kingdom
B. Invertebrates
     a.  Animals Without Backbones of Jointed Legs
     1.  Flatworms
     2.  Roundworms and Potworms
     3.  Earthworms
     4.  Land Leeches
     5.  Rotifers
     6.  Snails and Slugs
     7.  Tardigrades
     8.  Onychophrans
     b.  Arthropods Other Than Insects
     1.  Mites and Springtails
     2.  Proturans and Diplurans
     3.  Myriapods
     4.  Spiders
     5.  Daddy Longlegs
     6.  Psuedoscorpions
     7.  True Scorpions, Windscorpions, Whipscorpions, and Schizomids
     8.  Microwhipscorpions
     9.  Ricinuleids
     10. Woodlice
     11. Crayfish
     c.  Insects
     1.  Jumping Bristletails and Silverfish
     2.  Earwigs
     3.  Cockroaches
     4.  Camel Crickets and Mole Crickets
     5.  Short-horned Grasshoppers
     6.  Termites
     7.  Thrips
     8.  Big-eyed Bugs and Burrower Bugs
     9. Aphids, Phylloxerans, and Coccoids
     10. Cicadas and Rhipicerid Beetles
     11. Rove Beetles and Ground Beetles
     12. Tiger Beetles
     13. Short-winged Mold Beetles
     14. Featherwing Beetles
     15. Sap Beetles
     16. Antlike Stone Beetles
     17. Minute Fungus Beetles
     18. Ptilodactylid Beetles
     19. Glowworms, Fireflies, and Lighteningbugs
     20. Soldier Beetles
     21. Dung Beetles
     22. Carrion Beetles, Burying Beetles, and Hister Beetles
     23. Wireworms and Clickbeetles
     24. Beetles of Rotten Logs
     25. Scarabs, Weevils, and Their Grubs
     26. Variegated Mud-loving Beetles
     27. Fungus Beetles
     28. Scorpionflies
     29. Antlions
     30. Caterpillars and Moths
     31. March Flies
     32. Midges and Biting Midges
     33. Moth Flies
     34. Snipe Flies
     35. Robber flies
     36. Bee Flies
     37. Long-legged Flies
     38. Picture-winged Flies
     39. Root-maggot Flies
     40. Gall Wasps
     41. Parasitic Wasps
     42. Digger Bees and Velvet Ants
     43. Digger Wasps
     44. Ants
C. Vertebrates
     a.  Vertebrates Other Than Mammals
     1. Salamanders
     2. Toads
     3. Caecilians
     4.  Lizards
     5.  Snakes
     6.  Turtles and Tortoises
     7.  Birds
     b.  Mammals
     1.  Woodchucks
     2.  Badgers
     3.  Prairie Dogs
     4.  Ground Squirrels
     5.  Moles
     6.  Shrews
     7.  Pocket Gophers
     8.  Kangaroo Rats


     1.  Preventing Erosion
     2.  Avoiding Excessive Use of Fertilizers
     3.  Effects of Acid Rain
     4.  Avoiding salt-Encrusted Soils
     5.  Maintaining Soil Structure
     6.  Discouraging Invasion of Soils by Exotic Species
     7.  Composting as an Antidote to Soil Abuse

Collecting and Observing Life of the Soil
Further Reading


Choice Magazine: CHOICE Outstanding Academic Title Awards

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