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Oecologia. 2011 Mar;165(3):745-54. doi: 10.1007/s00442-010-1775-1. Epub 2010 Sep 17.

Earthworms, as ecosystem engineers, influence multiple aspects of a salamander's ecology.

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  • 1Department of Biology, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, VA 22904-4328, USA.


Ecosystem engineers create habitat that can be used by other species in multiple ways, such as refugees from predators, places to breed, or areas with increased prey resources. I conducted a series of enclosure experiments to: (1) determine if salamanders use earthworm burrows, and (2) examine the potential influence of earthworm burrow use and indirect effects on salamander intra- and interspecific competition, predator avoidance, and seasonal performance. I found that one species of woodland salamander, Plethodon cinereus, used earthworm burrows 50% of the time when burrows were present. Neither adults nor juveniles of the congeneric P. glutinosus used earthworm burrows. Intraspecific, but not interspecific, competition by P. cinereus affected salamander behavior when earthworms were absent, with P. cinereus found under cover objects >70% of the time when alone or with a P. glutinosus, but only 40% of the time when with another P. cinereus. When earthworms were present, the behavior of P. cinereus was similar across salamander treatments. Earthworms decreased the amount of leaf litter and microinvertebrates, although this did not affect salamander mass. In subsequent experiments using only P. cinereus, the refuge provided by earthworm burrows increased the survival of P. cinereus over the winter and allowed P. cinereus to avoid being consumed by the common garter snake (Thamnophis sirtalis). Because earthworm burrows provide a refuge for P. cinereus during intraspecific encounters, in the presence of a predator and over the winter, they may serve as an important belowground-aboveground linkage in eastern forests where salamanders are common.

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