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THE SOUND OF THE UNDERGROUND: What noisy worms tell us about soil health

Researchers are listening to earthworms, in what could be a major innovation for maintaining soil health.

In the first study of its kind, scientists are using a technique called ecoacoustics to listen to the activity of earthworms and other invertebrates in the soil. The theory is that a noisy soil is a healthy soil – and that the sounds generated in soil can be recorded, measured and used to evaluate soil condition.

It is hoped that the study will help develop a system to monitor the activity of earthworms and other soil fauna, to help farmers grow crops more efficiently. The work is a collaboration between soil scientists at the University of Warwick Crop Centre and Baker Consultants Ltd, experts in ecoacoustics.

Soil health is fundamental to sustainable crop production and global food security. Earthworms influence soil health via their feeding and burrowing activities, and a high abundance can improve plant productivity. They are also important source of prey for native wildlife.

Pilot studies have shown it is possible to record acoustics of organisms within the soil. This technique will have many benefits for soil monitoring, as measurements can be generated in minutes using a probe. Farmers would place probes within the soil and record the soundscape; this would then be analysed by computers using algorithms that compare the output to a sound library – the results used to assess biodiversity.

Farmers currently measure earthworm populations by digging and sorting large amounts of soil by hand. It is very laborious; a few spadefuls of soil can take over an hour to measure. Farmers across the UK, and the world, have repeatedly expressed their need for a better system for measuring earthworm communities.

The DEFRA-funded study, will also be using advanced artificial intelligence (AI) to deliver rapid sample analysis and reporting, as well as developing a Soil Acoustic Meter for which a patent is currently pending.

Dr Jacqueline Stroud, from the University of Warwick’s Crop Centre, said: “Soil is the most biodiverse habitat on the planet and it makes sense to use technology to help us understand these complex ecosystems. Earthworms make rasping sounds and rhythmic scrunching as they move through the soil which we can use to detect them. This technology is non-invasive and quick; it will help people to act more quickly and get more done regarding soil health.”

Andrew Baker, founder and Managing Director of Baker Consultants, said “We have already begun work on this project and all the data we have collected so far supports our basic hypothesis that a noisy soil is a healthy soil. This grant will allow us to deepen the scientific evidence behind our approach and to develop a cutting-edge soil monitoring service that promises to be a major disrupter in the soil testing market. We anticipate that this technique can be used world-wide anywhere where we are interested in soil health.”

The grant for this research has been awarded under Feasibility Round Two of the Farming Innovation Programme, which is being delivered by Innovate UK.

The Warwick Crop Centre, based on the University of Warwick Innovation Campus, in Stratford-Upon-Avon, is where plant scientists, epidemiologists, geneticists and entomologists work with industry to solve sector specific problems for farmers and growers. There is a dedicated research farm running field trials and pest monitoring projects and the UK Vegetable Gene Bank, a Defra funded facility which holds a national collection of seeds for wild relatives and heritage varieties of commonly gown field vegetables.

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14 July 2023