Skip to main content

Seed selection by earthworms: chemical seed properties matter more than morphological traits



The passage of seeds through the earthworm gut potentially damages seeds, altering seed and seedling performances depending on seed traits. This work was conducted to study to what extent chemical and morphological seed traits determine the seed attractiveness for earthworms.


We tested seed selection via the ingestion and digestion of 23 grassland plant species spanning a range of 14 morphological and chemical traits by two common earthworm species: the anecic Lumbricus terrestris and the endogeic Allolobophora chlorotica.


Both earthworm species ingested seeds from all plant species. A. chlorotica digested almost all ingested seeds (out of the 15 % ingested), whereas L. terrestris excreted them in varying quantities (out of the 86 % ingested), depending on plant species identity. Seed ingestion rate by L. terrestris was driven by seed oil content and earthworm initial weight. The apparent effect of seed length was explained via seed oil content. Seed digestion rate by L. terrestris was negatively impacted by seed size. Seed ingestion rate by A. chlorotica tended to be impacted by seed protein content and seed length.


Earthworms–seed interactions depend on a variety of seed traits and earthworm identity. Thus, earthworms, via their specific feeding behavior, might facilitate or impede the regeneration of certain plant species and drive plant communities.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.

Fig. 1
Fig. 2
Fig. 3
Fig. 4


Download references


We want to thank the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew for providing facilities and material for measurements, and the Jardins Botaniques de Caen et de Bailleul for providing seeds. We also deeply thank Yann Grzanka and Luce Palominos for their help in sorting seeds from earthworm casts, and the Editor and reviewers for their constructive comments and suggestions. Finally, we thank the Upper Normandy Region for funding part of Anne Soudey’s travel to Kew (UK). Our project was funded through the SCALE Network.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Corresponding author

Correspondence to Julia Clause.

Ethics declarations

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest

Additional information

Responsible Editor: Erik J. Joner.

Electronic supplementary material


(PDF 171 kb)


(PDF 274 kb)

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Clause, J., Forey, E., Eisenhauer, N. et al. Seed selection by earthworms: chemical seed properties matter more than morphological traits. Plant Soil 413, 97–110 (2017).

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI:


  • Above-belowground interactions
  • Fatty acid composition
  • Granivory
  • Oil content
  • Seed predation
  • Seed size