, Volume 8, Issue 6, pp 1287-1300
Date: 01 Sep 2006

Invasion of exotic earthworms into ecosystems inhabited by native earthworms

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Abstract

The most conspicuous biological invasions in terrestrial ecosystems have been by exotic plants, insects and vertebrates. Invasions by exotic earthworms, although not as well studied, may be increasing with global commerce in agriculture, waste management and bioremediation. A number of cases has documented where invasive earthworms have caused significant changes in soil profiles, nutrient and organic matter dynamics, other soil organisms or plant communities. Most of these cases are in areas that have been disturbed (e.g., agricultural systems) or were previously devoid of earthworms (e.g., north of Pleistocene glacial margins). It is not clear that such effects are common in ecosystems inhabited by native earthworms, especially where soils are undisturbed. We explore the idea that indigenous earthworm fauna and/or characteristics of their native habitats may resist invasion by exotic earthworms and thereby reduce the impact of exotic species on soil processes. We review data and case studies from temperate and tropical regions to test this idea. Specifically, we address the following questions: Is disturbance a prerequisite to invasion by exotic earthworms? What are the mechanisms by which exotic earthworms may succeed or fail to invade habitats occupied by native earthworms? Potential mechanisms could include (1) intensity of propagule pressure (how frequently and at what densities have exotic species been introduced and has there been adequate time for proliferation?); (2) degree of habitat matching (once introduced, are exotic species faced with unsuitable habitat conditions, unavailable resources, or unsuited feeding strategies?); and (3) degree of biotic resistance (after introduction into an otherwise suitable habitat, are exotic species exposed to biological barriers such as predation or parasitism, “unfamiliar” microflora, or competition by resident native species?). Once established, do exotic species co-exist with native species, or are the natives eventually excluded? Do exotic species impact soil processes differently in the presence or absence of native species? We conclude that (1) exotic earthworms do invade ecosystems inhabited by indigenous earthworms, even in the absence of obvious disturbance; (2) competitive exclusion of native earthworms by exotic earthworms is not easily demonstrated and, in fact, co-existence of native and exotic species appears to be common, even if transient; and (3) resistance to exotic earthworm invasions, if it occurs, may be more a function of physical and chemical characteristics of a habitat than of biological interactions between native and exotic earthworms.