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Open Access Research article

Unexpected earthworm effects on forest understory plants

Andrea Dávalos1*, Victoria Nuzzo2, Jordan Stark34 and Bernd Blossey1

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Natural Resources, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York 14853, USA

2 Natural Area Consultants, 1 West Hill School Road, Richford, New York 13835, USA

3 TST New Visions in Life Sciences, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York 14853, USA

4 Current address: Skidmore College, Saratoga Springs, New York 12866, USA

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BMC Ecology 2013, 13:48  doi:10.1186/1472-6785-13-48

Published: 5 December 2013

Abstract

Background

Introduced earthworms are widespread in forests of North America creating significant negative impacts on forest understory communities. However, much of the reported evidence for negative earthworm effects comes from field investigations either comparing invaded and non-invaded forests or across invasion fronts. While important, such work is rarely able to capture the true effect of earthworms on individual plant species because most forests in North America simultaneously face multiple stressors which may confound earthworm impacts.

We used a mesocosm experiment to isolate effects of the anecic introduced earthworm, Lumbricus terrestris L. on seedlings of 14 native plant species representing different life form groups (perennial herb, graminoid, and tree).

Results

Earthworm presence did not affect survival, fertility or biomass of any of the seedling plant species tested over a 17-week period. However, L. terrestris presence significantly decreased growth of two sedges (Carex retroflexa Muhl. ex Willd. and Carex radiata (Wahlenb.) Small) by decreasing the number of culms.

Conclusions

Our mesocosm results with seedlings contrast with field reports indicating extensive and significant negative effects of introduced earthworms on many mature native forbs, and positive effects on sedges. We suggest that earthworm impacts are context- and age-specific and that generalizations about their impacts are potentially misleading without considering and manipulating other associated factors.

Keywords:
Lumbricus terrestris; Forest understory; Plant community; Earthworm invasion; Mesocosm; Sedge