Alien earthworms changing ecology of Northeast forests

ll. Within a decade or two, the worms can essentially change the soil profile into something like the black mineral-rich soils that are found in many European forests."

Funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Rhode Island Agricultural Experiment Station, Grres and Amador have set up study plots in local forests to evaluate the impact of the worms. They expect that over time the leaf litter and the duff layer in the protected plots will disappear because of the voracious worms. "At some point, the number of worms that can survive in a given area will be regulated by the amount of new leaf litter that falls," said Amador. "We'll also see a change in the plant and animal communities that live there."

The researchers are also trying to determine whether the worms are increasing the amount of carbon dioxide and methane going into the atmosphere. "The leaf litter and duff layers consist almost entirely of stored carbon, so when the worms eat and process the litter and duff, they release carbon dioxide and possibly methane in their burrows," Amador said. "We're not predicting catastrophe, of course, since the total amount of the gases they release is small. But it's a previously unaccounted potential source of greenhouse gases entering the atmosphere."

All this is not to say that earthworms aren't beneficial. In fact, Amador believes that worms could be used in place of some of the fertilizers used in commercial agriculture.

"One of the tenets of organic agriculture is the reduction of inputs of synthetic fertilizers, and worms can help do this," he said. "We want to demonstrate to farmers that worms can provide a real benefit to crop production. Sustainable agriculture is all about soil quality. We want to come up with hard data about the contribution soil animals make to the quality of soil."

When worms eat the crop litter left from last year's harvest, they release nitrogen a major component of fertilizer -- from the dea

Contact: Todd McLeish
University of Rhode Island

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