Soil protozoa are characterized by their ability to produce cysts, which allows them to survive unfavorable conditions (e.g., desiccation) for extended periods. Under favorable conditions, they may rapidly excyst and begin feeding, but even under optimal conditions, a large proportion of the population may be encysted. The factors governing the dynamics of active and encysted cells in the soil are not well understood. Our objective was to determine the dynamics of active and encysted populations of ciliates during the decomposition of freshly added organic material. We monitored, in soil microcosms, the active and total populations of ciliates, their potential prey (bacteria and small protozoa), their potential competitors (amoebae, flagellates, and nematodes), and their potential predators (nematodes). We sampled with short time intervals (2 to 6 days) and generated a data set, suitable for mathematical modeling. Following the addition of fresh organic material, bacterial numbers increased more than 1,400-fold. There was a temporary increase in the number of active ciliates, followed by a rapid decline, although the size of the bacterial prey populations remained high. During this initial burst of ciliate growth, the population of cystic ciliates increased 100-fold. We suggest that internal population regulation is the major factor governing ciliate encystment and that the rate of encystment depends on ciliate density. This model provides a quantitative explanation of ciliatostasis and can explain why protozoan growth in soil is less than that in aquatic systems. Internally governed encystment may be an essential adaptation to an unpredictable environment in which individual protozoa cannot predict when the soil will dry out and will survive desiccation only if they have encysted in time.
Ekelund, F., Frederiksen, H. B., & Ronn, R. (2002). Population dynamics of active and total ciliate populations in arable soil amended with wheat. Applied and Environmental Microbiology, 68(3), 1096-1101. https://doi.org/10.1128/AEM.68.3.1096-1101.2002