AUBURN, Ala.—The National Science Foundation has awarded an eclectic trio of Auburn University scientists $300,000 to determine how tunnel-digging insects affect the physical structure of soil and, subsequently, the way water moves through it.
And though the top objective of the three-year study is to expand scientists’ basic understanding of soil hydrological processes, it also could yield new data to help sod farmers, sports-field managers, golf course superintendents and homeowners across the South get the upper hand on a major nemesis: the turf-destroying mole cricket.
Teaming up on the project are Auburn soil physicist Navin Twarakavi from the Department of Agronomy and Soils, environmental engineer Prabhakar Clement from the Department of Civil Engineering and entomologist David Held from the Department of Entomology and Plant Pathology.
Competition for NSF grants is intense, and Twarakavi, who is leading the Auburn project, says the cross-disciplinary approach of the study undoubtedly helped secure funding for the study.
“The NSF looks very favorably on research proposals that bring together scientists from different disciplines and fields of study,” Twarakavi said, “and they did note on ours that it was the first proposal they had received that had an entomologist collaborating on a soil hydrology study.”
At the heart of the multifaceted project are soil macropores, which basically are subsurface paths in soils through which water flows. In laboratory and field experiments, the scientists will examine how these macropores—or biopores, as those created by living organisms are called—develop and evolve when mole crickets enter the picture and how those spaces alter key soil-water interactions, including infiltration, runoff and contaminant transportation processes.
In addition to broadening the scientific world’s knowledge of how water flows and impurities are transported through soils in which substantial macropores are present, the study should yield new findings as to how biopores created by insects differ from artificial macropores typically used in laboratory experiments, especially in terms of flow processes.
And from the entomological perspective, the study will shed light on the burrowing behaviors of mole crickets and could lead to the development of more efficient pesticide delivery strategies for controlling the pests. Currently, turfgrass managers spend hundreds of dollars per acre to keep the pests in check.
The study was the brainchild of Twarakavi, a firm supporter of the principle that all natural processes are inexplicably linked and ideally are best studied together.
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