Invasive earthworms modulate native plant trait expression and competition

Rike Schwarz*, Nico Eisenhauer, Olga Ferlian, Fernando T. Maestre, Benjamin Rosenbaum, Henriette Uthe, Lise Thouvenot

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Biological invasions have major impacts on a variety of ecosystems and threaten native biodiversity. Earthworms have been absent from northern parts of North America since the last ice age, but non-native earthworms were recently introduced there and are now being spread by human activities. While past work has shown that plant communities in earthworm-invaded areas change towards a lower diversity mainly dominated by grasses, the underlying mechanisms related to changes in the biotic interactions of the plants are not well understood. Here, we used a trait-based approach to study the effect of earthworms on interspecific plant competition and aboveground herbivory. We conducted a microcosm experiment in a growth chamber with a full-factorial design using three plant species native to northern North American deciduous forests, Poa palustris (grass), Symphyotrichum laeve (herb) and Vicia americana (legume), either growing in monoculture or in a mixture of three. These plant community treatments were crossed with earthworm (presence or absence) and herbivore (presence or absence) treatments. Eight out of the fourteen above- and belowground plant functional traits studied were significantly affected by earthworms, either by a general effect or in interaction with plant species identity, plant diversity level and/or herbivore presence. Earthworms increased the aboveground productivity and the number of inflorescences of the grass P. palustris. Further, earthworms and herbivores together affected root tissue density of P. palustris and the specific leaf area of V. americana. In this study, earthworm presence gave a competitive advantage to the grass species P. palustris by inducing changes in plant functional traits. Our results suggest that invasive earthworms can alter competitive and multitrophic interactions of plants, shedding light on some of the mechanisms behind invasive earthworm-induced plant community changes in northern North America forests.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere10008
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 2024


  • biological invasion
  • competition
  • detritivore
  • herbivory
  • plant functional traits

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics


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