, Volume 8, Issue 6, pp 1275-1285
Date: 12 Sep 2006

The influence of invasive earthworms on indigenous fauna in ecosystems previously uninhabited by earthworms

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Abstract

Recent studies on earthworm invasion of North American soils report dramatic changes in soil structure, nutrient dynamics and plant communities in ecosystems historically free of earthworms. However, the direct and indirect impacts of earthworm invasions on animals have been largely ignored. This paper summarizes the current knowledge on the impact of earthworm invasion on other soil fauna, vertebrates as well as invertebrates.

Earthworm invasions can have positive effects on the abundance of other soil invertebrates, but such effects are often small, transient, and restricted to habitats with harsh climates or a long history of earthworm co-occurrence with other soil invertebrates. Middens and burrows can increase soil heterogeneity and create microhabitats with a larger pore size, high microbial biomass, and microclimates that are attractive to micro- and mesofauna. Under harsh climatic conditions, the aggregates formed by earthworms may increase the stability of soil microclimates. Positive effects can also be seen when comminution and mucus secretion increase the palatability of unpalatable organic material for microorganisms which are the main food of most micro- and mesofaunal groups. For larger invertebrates or small vertebrates, invasive earthworms may become important prey, with the potential to increase resource availability.

In the longer-term, the activity of invading earthworms can have a strong negative impact on indigenous faunal groups across multiple trophic levels. Evidence from field and laboratory studies indicates that the restructuring of soil layers, particularly the loss of organic horizons, physical disturbance to the soil, alteration of understory vegetation, and direct competition for food resources, lead directly and indirectly to significant declines in the abundance of soil micro- and mesofauna. Though studies of invasive earthworm impacts on the abundance of larger invertebrates or vertebrates are generally lacking, recent evidence suggests that reduced abundance of small soil fauna and alteration of soil microclimates may be contributing to declines in vertebrate fauna such as terrestrial salamanders. Preliminary evidence also suggests the potential for earthworm invasions to interact with other factors such as soil pollution, to negatively affect vertebrate populations.