for National Geographic News
Overturn a wet rock or poke into a pile of damp leaf litter, and you may send a mass of tiny creatures known as Collembola jumping for cover.
The world's most abundant insect (although taxonomists debate if they are true insects), Collembola have been around for at least 400 million years and exist in as many as 100,000 varieties.
They have segmented bodies, antennae, eyes, and legs that enable them to feel, see, and move about in nearly every kind of terrestrial environment, from high mountain peaks to sandy shores of tropical beaches.
Many species of Collembola live in soil and are an important component of agricultural ecosystems. They feed on soil microorganisms and organic material, thereby helping to regulate the mineralization of nutrients and make them available to plants.
Despite this critical function, however, very little is known about Collembola in biologically rich tropical environments.
Mark Culik, an entomologist from West Virginia University, is scouring the soils of Espírito Santo, Brazil, to find out more about the Collembola that dwell thereknowledge that he hopes will benefit agriculture in one of the world's most threatened ecosystems.
"In general, Collembola are seldom noticed in agricultural or other environments," said Culik, who has been collaborating since 1999 with scientists at INCAPER, the Espírito Santo state rural research and extension organization.
"Almost nothing is known of the Collembola of Espírito Santo, and relatively little is known about the Collembola of Brazil and other tropical areas," he added. Ken Christensen, a biologist at Grinnell College in Iowa who specializes in the study of Collembola, said the work by Culik and his colleagues "will help remedy this."
The research, which is funded in part by a grant from the National Geographic Society's Committee for Research and Exploration, has led to the discovery of several new species of Collembola and the documentation of their abundance in Brazil.
Espírito Santo is a 28,583-square-mile (46,000-square-kilometer) slice of land located at the center of Brazil where temperate mountains rise from the hot and humid Brazilian coast.
Agriculture is the main source of income for about 12 percent of the 3 million people who call Espírito Santo home. The state is the second largest coffee producer in Brazil. Papaya, avocado, banana, oranges, cocoa, and mango are among the other abundant crops.
SOURCES AND RELATED WEB SITES