The spread of exotic earthworms (‘worming’) and rising temperatures are expected to alter the biological, chemical and physical properties of many ecosystems, yet little is known about their potential interactive effects. We performed a laboratory microcosm experiment to investigate the effects of earthworms (anecic, endogeic, epigeic, or all three together) and 4°C warming on soil water content, litter turnover and seedling establishment of four native and four exotic herbaceous plant species.
Warming and worming exerted independent as well as interactive effects on soil processes and plant dynamics. Warming reduced the water content of the upper soil layer, but only in the presence of earthworms. Litter removal increased in the presence of earthworms, the effect being most pronounced in the presence of anecic earthworms at ambient temperature. Exotic plant species were most influenced by earthworms (lower seedling number but higher biomass), whereas natives were most sensitive to warming (higher seedling number). This differential response resulted in significant interaction effects of earthworms and warming on abundance and richness of native relative to exotic plants as well as related shifts in plant species composition. Structural equation modeling allowed us to address possible mechanisms: direct effects of earthworms primarily affected exotic plants, whereas earthworms and warming indirectly and differentially affected native and exotic plants through changes in soil water content and surface litter.
Invasive earthworms and warming are likely to interactively impact abiotic and biotic ecosystem properties. The invasion of epigeic and anecic species could select for plant species able to germinate on bare soil and tolerate drought, with the latter becoming more important in a warmer world. Thus earthworm invasion may result in simplified plant communities of increased susceptibility to the invasion of exotic plants.