Ecological functional genomics, dealing with the responses of organisms to their natural environment is confronted with a complex pattern of variation and a large number of confounding environmental factors. For gene expression studies to provide meaningful information on conditions deviating from normal, a baseline or normal operating range (NOR) response needs to be established which indicates how an organism's transcriptome reacts to naturally varying ecological factors. Here we determine the transcriptional plasticity of a soil arthropod, Folsomia candida, exposed to various natural environments, as part of a first attempt in establishing such a NOR. Animals were exposed to 26 different field soils after which gene expression levels were measured. The main factor found to regulate gene expression was soil-type (sand or clay). Cell homeostasis and DNA replication were affected in collembolans exposed to sandy soil, indicating general stress. Multivariate analysis identified soil fertility as the main factor influencing gene expression. Regarding land-use, only forest soils showed an expression pattern deviating from the others. No significant effect of land-use, agricultural practice or soil type on fitness was observed, but arsenic concentration was negatively correlated with reproductive output. In conclusion, transcriptional responses remained within a limited range across the different land-uses but were significantly affected by soil-type. This may be caused by the contrasting soil physicochemical properties to which F. candida strongly responds. The broad range of conditions over which this soil-living detritivore is able to survive and reproduce, indicates a strategy of high plasticity, which comes with extensive gene expression regulation. © 2011 Blackwell Publishing Ltd.