Earthworm invasion into previously earthworm-free temperate and boreal forests

Lee E Frelich, Cindy M. Hale, Stefan Scheu, Andrew R. Holdsworth, Liam Heneghan, Patrick J. Bohlen, Peter B Reich

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

247 Scopus citations


Earthworms are keystone detritivores that can influence primary producers by changing seedbed conditions, soil characteristics, flow of water, nutrients and carbon, and plant-herbivore interactions. The invasion of European earthworms into previously earthworm-free temperate and boreal forests of North America dominated by Acer, Quercus, Betula, Pinus and Populus has provided ample opportunity to observe how earthworms engineer ecosystems. Impacts vary with soil parent material, land use history, and assemblage of invading earthworm species. Earthworms reduce the thickness of organic layers, increase the bulk density of soils and incorporate litter and humus materials into deeper horizons of the soil profile, thereby affecting the whole soil food web and the above ground plant community. Mixing of organic and mineral materials turns mor into mull humus which significantly changes the distribution and community composition of the soil microflora and seedbed conditions for vascular plants. In some forests earthworm invasion leads to reduced availability and increased leaching of N and P in soil horizons where most fine roots are concentrated. Earthworms can contribute to a forest decline syndrome, and forest herbs in the genera Aralia, Botrychium, Osmorhiza, Trillium, Uvularia, and Viola are reduced in abundance during earthworm invasion. The degree of plant recovery after invasion varies greatly among sites and depends on complex interactions with soil processes and herbivores. These changes are likely to alter competitive relationships among plant species, possibly facilitating invasion of exotic plant species such as Rhamnus cathartica into North American forests, leading to as yet unknown changes in successional trajectory.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1235-1245
Number of pages11
JournalBiological Invasions
Issue number6
StatePublished - Sep 2006

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
Acknowledgements Funding from the National Science Foundation (DEB-0075236) and University of Minnesota Center for Hardwood Ecology is gratefully acknowledged.


  • Aporrectodea
  • Dendrobaena
  • Exotic earthworm invasion
  • Keystone species
  • Lumbricus rubellus
  • Lumbricus terrestris
  • Minnesota forests
  • New York forests


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