Life in the Dirt Is Hard. And Climate Change Isn’t Helping.

They’re dirt-dwelling invertebrates, but, in a sense, they’re the real backbone of Earth’s carbon cycle.

Thousands of species of mites and springtails, living in soil all around the world, provide a crucial service by munching organic matter like fallen leaves and wood, transferring its planet-warming carbon into the ground and releasing nutrients that help new plants grow.

But now, a new analysis that combined data from 38 different studies on the organisms suggests that drought in some parts of the world, often supercharged by climate change, are killing them off at alarming rates.

“It is important to take care of these critters in particular because we know so little about them,” said Ina Schaefer, a soil invertebrate ecology researcher at the University of Göttingen in Germany.

While some of these organisms live deep within the soil, others spend most of their lives scuttling around on the surface. Scientists don’t fully understand exactly how they break down decaying organic matter, but new molecular research shows springtails actually have special genes for the job.

(That’s not their only talent: Some springtails are about the size of a grain of sand and can fling themselves into the air like circus acrobats, spinning up to 500 times per second. Scientists think it could be a way to escape predators.)

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