Earthworm invasions in northern forests


By Erin Cameron, Postdoctoral Researcher, Helsinki University, Finland



Lumbricus terrestris.  Image by E. Cameron

Lumbricus terrestris. Image by E. Cameron

Finishing my paper route always took longer on rainy days when I was a kid – I had to walk slowly to avoid stepping on earthworms and occasionally I stopped to move them off the sidewalk. I would never have believed that earthworms were invasive in much of Canada and the northern United States! In those previously glaciated areas, there are no native earthworms, but instead only European earthworms that were introduced to North America with the arrival of European settlers.

Earthworm populations can only expand about 5 to 15 meters per year on their own, and consequently people play a key role in their spread. For my master’s thesis with Dr. Erin Bayne at the University of Alberta, I tried to determine how earthworms were spreading in Alberta’s boreal forest. I was sold on the research question once I realized that I’d need to canoe or kayak across lakes to test whether earthworms were most common near boat launches where anglers might dump their earthworm bait. After a couple near misses but only one capsizing incident, we found that earthworms were present at approximately 70% of the boat launches and roads sampled, but only 35% of far shores and less than 15% of forest interiors. They were also more likely to occur at older roads than more recently built roads, suggesting that earthworms were introduced by vehicle traffic (their eggs can become stuck in tire treads) not during construction of the roads.

After examining how earthworms were being introduced, we started to investigate their effects in the boreal forest. Surprisingly to most people, earthworms do not always improve soil health or benefit other organisms. When exotic earthworms invade forests where there are no native earthworms, they consume leaf litter layers, mix organic and mineral soil horizons, and affect nutrient cycling. These impacts on soil structure and ecosystem functioning can then lead to cascading effects on other organisms. In northern Alberta, we found that earthworms decreased the thickness of the leaf litter layer, reduced the abundance and diversity of microarthropods, and decreased plant biomass, depending on the species. Not all species were negatively affected though – one of the key predators of earthworms, the American robin, was more likely to occur in areas where earthworms were present.

Sampling for earthworms in the boreal forest. Image by R. Rocha

Sampling for earthworms in the boreal forest. Image by R. Rocha

Earthworm invasions are at an earlier stage in northern boreal forests than temperate hardwood forests, where the deep burrowing and mineral soil dwelling species that cause the largest changes are more widespread. At our study sites, the most common species is a litter dwelling species called Dendrobaena octaedra. But because most people are not aware that earthworms are invasive, they continue to introduce earthworms by dumping their bait, moving soil, or not cleaning their tires when travelling to remote areas. We started a citizen science project to collect data on earthworm distributions across Alberta, which at the same time serves to increase public awareness about earthworm invasions:

However, earthworm invasions are occurring globally, rather than only in North America. We also lack data on distributions of native and exotic species of earthworms at broad scales, making it difficult to determine the key factors driving their distributions. To address this issue, we started a working group (sWORM; at the German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research (iDiv) to synthesize data on earthworm distributions. Let us know if you have earthworm data and want to participate!

Further reading:

Cameron EK, Bayne EM, Clapperton MJ. 2007. Human-facilitated invasion of exotic earthworms into northern boreal forests. Ecoscience 14: 482-490.

Cameron EK, Bayne EM. 2012. Invasion by a non-native ecosystem engineer alters distribution of a native predator. Diversity and Distributions 18: 1190-1198.

Craven D et al. 2016. The unseen invaders: introduced earthworms as drivers of change in plant communities in North American forests (a meta-analysis). Global Change Biology 23: 1065-1074.