Skip to main content


Log in

Litter quality, dispersal and invasion drive earthworm community dynamics and forest soil development

  • Community ecology – original research
  • Published:
Oecologia Aims and scope Submit manuscript


In temperate deciduous forests of eastern USA, most earthworm communities are dominated by invasive species. Their structure and functional group composition have critical impacts on ecological properties and processes. However, the factors determining their community structure are still poorly understood, and little is known regarding their dynamics during forest succession and the mechanisms leading to these changes. Earthworm communities are usually assumed to be stable and driven by vegetation. In contrast, the importance of dispersal and ecological drift is seldom acknowledged. By analyzing a 19-year dataset collected from forest stands in eastern USA, we demonstrated that on a decadal timescale, earthworm community dynamics are shaped by the interplay of selection, dispersal, and ecological drift. We highlighted that forests at different successional stages have distinct earthworm species and functional groups as a result of environmental filtering through leaf litter quality. Specifically, young forests are characterized by soil-feeding species that rely on relatively fresh soil organic matter derived from fast-decomposing litter, whereas old forests are characterized by those feeding on highly processed soil organic matter derived from slow-decomposing litter. In addition, year-to-year species gains and losses are primarily driven by dispersal from regional to local species pools, and by local extinction resulted from competition and ecological drift. We concluded that with continued dispersal of European species and the recent “second wave” of earthworm invasion by Asian species from the surrounding landscape, earthworms at the investigated forests are well-established, and will remain as the major drivers of soil development for the foreseeable future.

This is a preview of subscription content, log in via an institution to check access.

Access this article

Price excludes VAT (USA)
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.

Instant access to the full article PDF.

Fig. 1
Fig. 2
Fig. 3
Fig. 4
Fig. 5

Similar content being viewed by others


Download references


This study was partially supported by grants from United States Department of Agriculture (CSREES NRI 2007-35320-18375), and National Science Foundation of USA (EAR-0748442 and EAGER NEON 1550795). We thank Anson Hines for permission to conduct research at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center, Pat Neale for providing the precipitation data, and Xu Yang for organizing the precipitation data. Jay O’Neil, Jia-Hsing Wu, several SERC volunteers and undergraduate students helped in the field. Dennis Whigham and two anonymous reviewers provided helpful comments on an earlier version of this manuscript.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations



KS, CHC, MJB and CsCs conceived the ideas and designed the methodology; KS, CHC, MJB, SLP, LX, YM, TF and conducted fieldwork; CHC analyzed the data; KS and CHC collaboratively wrote the manuscript; comments by the other authors improved the manuscript.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Chih-Han Chang.

Additional information

Communicated by Stefan Scheu.

Electronic supplementary material

Below is the link to the electronic supplementary material.

Supplementary material 1 (PDF 505 kb)

Rights and permissions

Reprints and permissions

About this article

Check for updates. Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Szlavecz, K., Chang, CH., Bernard, M.J. et al. Litter quality, dispersal and invasion drive earthworm community dynamics and forest soil development. Oecologia 188, 237–250 (2018).

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI: