CSI Ecology – solving murders on springtails and earthworms

Submitted by editor on 10 January 2014.

Who are the murderers and who are the victims in forest soils? Read about Babett Günther and co-workers’ homocide investigation in the Early View Oikos paper: “Variations in prey consumption of centipede predators in forest soils as indicated by molecular gut content analysis”. 

Here’s their story about the study:

We all know from TV series like CSI: crime and murder always happen in the dark, in remote and obscure places where the victim is overwhelmed by the sneakily attacking offenders. Killing is not only confined to humans, and the offender may have some good reason to kill, for example predation and nutrition. But what are the circumstances of successful killing and predation? Are there more killings when there are more/smaller/less defensive victims? Or is it the size of the attacker? Or is it because of the structure and topography of the crime scene?

We tested these hypotheses in one of the most obscure and unearthly environments: the soil and litter layer of different forests. The victims: springtails, dipteran larvae and earthworms. The delinquents: small and large stone centipedes of the genus Lithobius. Just like TV forensic scientists, after rummaging through the dirt, looking for DNA evidence, drinking a lot of coffee and after many long nights in the laboratory, we finally solved the case:

large centipedes are able to kill more prey at high prey abundances and in unstructured environments, while the opposite was true for small predators. Interestingly, small centipedes were also shown to overwhelm large victims, indicating high criminal energy in small creatures, as has been already demonstrated for humans (e.g. John Dillinger).