Biodiversity in a warmer world: lessons from soil nematodes

Predatory female nematode Clarkus sp.
Image by M. Ciobanu

By Madhav Thakur, postdoctoral researcher, German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research (iDIV)


John Haldane, the famous evolutionary biologist, popularized the immense diversity of beetles by writing: “The creator, if he exists, has an inordinate fondness for beetles”.  I wonder if Haldane was aware of nematodes. Nematodes are incredibly diverse and abundant tiny worms living almost everywhere on planet Earth. Some estimates point that we may have a million of nematode species on Earth. I remember Tom Bongers, a world-known nematode taxonomist, in his lectures saying every time one samples a forest soil, s/he is likely to find a new species of nematodes.

At the beginning of my PhD in 2013, I got interested in how on-going climate warming affects biodiversity. At this point, I already was familiar with the free-living nematodes in the soil, and in particular, impressed by their omnipresence in any environment.  After the consultations with my PhD supervisor, Prof. Nico Eisenhauer, I decided to investigate whether warmer soil harbours less or more diversity of nematodes. Fortunately, I was offered to investigate nematode diversity in a long-term climate warming experiment in the meadows of Cedar Creek in Minnesota, USA. This climate warming experiment was unique for two reasons: 1) Climate warming was experimentally crossed with plant diversity and, 2) Plant diversity treatments in this experiment were the part of the BigBio experiment, which is one of the oldest biodiversity experiments in the world. Further, I was very excited to work with Prof. David Tilman, who is the principal investigator of this experiment, and well-known for his contributions for our understanding of the causes and consequences of biodiversity.

Areal view of Biodiversity & Climate experiment
Image by J. Miller

Once I was able to collect nematodes and identify them with the help of colleagues (Dr. Marcel Ciobanu in particular), I started getting back at the warming and biodiversity question. Since we understand biodiversity in many different ways, I calculated many different metrics of biodiversity and see whether I could find any consistent pattern. The most striking and consistent pattern was that warming both increased and decreased nematode diversity. The key was whether the nematodes were from plant monoculture soils or from the soil of diverse plant communities. Warmer plant monocultures were lower in nematode diversity, whereas warmer diverse plant communities were higher in nematode diversity. Although these results were exciting, I did want to explore further. With the help of Dr. Oliver Purschke, I investigated whether warming also structures nematode communities in a given way. Indeed, the results revealed that nematodes were taxonomically more similar than expected in warmer soils independent of plant diversity. So even if warming increased nematode diversity in diverse plant communities, nematode communities become increasingly similar. We published these results recently in Science Advances.


The climate warming and biodiversity question will stay with ecologists for a longer time. Our results do provide some clues by using one of the most diverse and abundant organisms. At this stage, I am even more curious by the question how general are our results. Whether Haldane’s beetles, or our nematodes, biodiversity in a warmer world is very likely to be different than the past and present biodiversity.



M. P. Thakur, D. Tilman, O. Purschke, M. Ciobanu, J. Cowles, F. Isbell, P. D. Wragg, N. Eisenhauer (2017), Climate warming promotes species diversity, but with greater taxonomic redundancy, in complex environments. Science Advances 3, e1700866. Doi: 10.1126/sciadv.1700866.