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The Kid Should See This

The Soil Food Web, claymation shorts by Maxwell Helmberger

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We grow food in the soil. We dig in it, play in it, build from it, and build over it. We depend on it, but we don’t always know much about it or who lives in it. Soil ecologist and science filmmaker Maxwell Helmberger aims to change that with his claymation shorts about soil ecology and biodiversity.

Enter The Soil Food Web, a summary of the microbes, worms, funguses, mites, springtails, and other creatures who keep dirt nutrient and in balance.

soil food web claymation
As an entomology Ph.D. student studying the soil invertebrate response to microplastics, Helmberger is on a mission “to expand the world’s knowledge of and appreciation for the weird and wonderful world beneath our feet,” prioritizing topics for which little or no video material exists. In an email interview with TKSST, Helmberger provides an example:

For the soil food web video, I actually did have to do a little research, though what I needed wouldn’t be found in any written work. I needed to know how exactly certain types of mites walked, so I extracted some of those mites from soil, put them in a plaster dish under a microscope, and used my phone to record slow-motion video of them walking, so I could see exactly which legs moved when and how they moved.

Next, learn about Earthworm Effects on Soil: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, a video that emphasizes “the fact that while they can be good in some soils, they can negatively affect other soil environments, especially when they are invasive.”

“Therefore, they should not be carelessly introduced to new soils. Moral of the story, don’t dump your bait.”


earthworm benefits and challenges
In Ecosystem Services in Agriculture, Helmberger introduces the environmental benefits of the small creatures that you might not normally notice on a farm, like earthworms, bees, and ladybugs, also called ladybeetles and ladybirds. A definition via the National Wildlife Federation:

“An ecosystem service is any positive benefit that wildlife or ecosystems provide to people. The benefits can be direct or indirect—small or large.”


ladybeetle claymation
Follow Maxwell Helmberger on YouTube or on Twitter, and learn more about his motivation and filmmaking on TKSST: Life in the soil revealed in claymation shorts.

Plus, watch more videos about soil, ecology, and sustainability:
• Soil 101 from the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization
• Inside the Compost Cycle: Turning waste to nutrient-rich soil
Vermicomposting with red wigglers, a time lapse
Soil Life in Action: Bioturbation with and without soil fauna
• How do living things change their environments?

Bonus: More claymation, including The Wild World of Carnivorous Plants and The Water Cycle: A boogie woogie stop motion clay animation.

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