, Volume 8, Issue 8, pp 911-927

Effects of European Earthworm Invasion on Soil Characteristics in Northern Hardwood Forests of Minnesota, USA

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Abstract

European earthworms are colonizing worm-free hardwood forests across North America. Leading edges of earthworm invasion in forests of northern Minnesota provide a rare opportunity to document changes in soil characteristics as earthworm invasions are occurring. Across leading edges of earthworm invasion in four northern hardwood stands, increasing total earthworm biomass was associated with rapid disappearance of the O horizon. Concurrently, the thickness, bulk density and total soil organic matter content of the A horizon increased, and it’s percent organic matter and fine root density decreased. Different earthworm species assemblages influenced the magnitude and type of change in these soil parameters. Soil N and P availability were lower in plots with high earthworm biomass compared to plots with low worm biomass. Decreases in soil nitrogen availability associated with high earthworm biomass were reflected in decreased foliar nitrogen content for Carex pensylvanica, Acer saccharum and Asarum canadense but increased foliar N for Athyrium felix-femina. Overall, high earthworm biomass resulted in increased foliar carbon to nitrogen ratios. The effects of earthworm species assemblages on forest soil properties are related to their feeding and burrowing habits in addition to effects related to total biomass. The potential for large ecosystem consequences following exotic earthworm invasion has only recently been recognized by forest ecologists. In the face of rapid change and multiple pressures on native forest ecosystems, the impacts of earthworm invasion on forest soil structure and function must be considered.