Are power laws that estimate fractal dimension a good descriptor of soil structure and its link to soil biological properties?

Tancredi Caruso*, E. Kathryn Barto, Md. Rezaul Karim Siddiky, Jeffrey Smigelski, Matthias C. Rillig

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

19 Citations (Scopus)


The study of interrelationships between soil structure and its functional properties is complicated by the fact that the quantitative description of soil structure is challenging. Soil scientists have tackled this challenge by taking advantage of approaches such as fractal geometry, which describes soil architectural complexity through a scaling exponent (D) relating mass and numbers of particles/aggregates to particle/aggregate size. Typically, soil biologists use empirical indices such as mean weight diameters (MWD) and percent of water stable aggregates (WSA), or the entire size distribution, and they have successfully related these indices to key soil features such as C and N dynamics and biological promoters of soil structure. Here, we focused on D, WSA and MWD and we tested whether: D estimated by the exponent of the power law of number-size distributions is a good and consistent correlate of MWD and WSA; D carries information that differs from MWD and WSA; the fraction of variation in D that is uncorrelated with MWD and WSA is related to soil chemical and biological properties that are thought to establish interdependence with soil structure (e.g., organic C, N, arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi). We analysed observational data from a broad scale field study and results from a greenhouse experiment where arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi (AMF) and collembola altered soil structure. We were able to develop empirical models that account for a highly significant and large portion of the correlation observed between WSA and MWD but we did not uncover the mechanisms that underlie this correlation. We conclude that most of the covariance between D and soil biotic (AMF, plant roots) and abiotic (C. N) properties can be accounted for by WSA and MWD. This result implies that the ecological effects of the fragmentation properties described by D and generally discussed under the framework of fractal models can be interpreted under the intuitive perspective of simpler indices and we suggest that the biotic components mostly impacted the largest size fractions, which dominate MWD, WSA and the scaling exponent ruling number-size distributions. (C) 2010 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)359-366
Number of pages8
JournalSoil Biology and Biochemistry
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - Feb 2011


  • Power-law exponent
  • Plant
  • MWD
  • C
  • N
  • Fractals
  • Collembola
  • Soil structure
  • AMF
  • Biodiversity Exploratories
  • MASS
  • WSA


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