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Conserv Biol. 2009 Aug;23(4):966-74. doi: 10.1111/j.1523-1739.2009.01168.x. Epub 2009 Feb 19.

Earthworm invasion as the driving force behind plant invasion and community change in northeastern North American forests.

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1
Natural Area Consultants, Richford, NY 13835, USA.

Abstract

Identification of factors that drive changes in plant community structure and contribute to decline and endangerment of native plant species is essential to the development of appropriate management strategies. Introduced species are assumed to be driving causes of shifts in native plant communities, but unequivocal evidence supporting this view is frequently lacking. We measured native vegetation, non-native earthworm biomass, and leaf-litter volume in 15 forests in the presence and absence of 3 non-native plant species (Microstegium vimineum, Alliaria petiolata, Berberis thunbergii) to assess the general impact of non-native plant and earthworm invasions on native plant communities in northeastern United States. Non-native plant cover was positively correlated with total native plant cover and non-native earthworm biomass. Earthworm biomass was negatively associated with cover of native woody and most herbaceous plants and with litter volume. Graminoid cover was positively associated with non-native earthworm biomass and non-native plant cover. These earthworm-associated responses were detected at all sites despite differences in earthworm species and abundance, composition of the native plant community, identity of invasive plant species, and geographic region. These patterns suggest earthworm invasion, rather than non-native plant invasion, is the driving force behind changes in forest plant communities in northeastern North America, including declines in native plant species, and earthworm invasions appear to facilitate plant invasions in these forests. Thus, a focus on management of invasive plant species may be insufficient to protect northeastern forest understory species.

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