McCormick, Melissa K., Parker, Kenneth L., Szlavecz, Katalin, and Whigham, Dennis F. 2013. "Native and exotic earthworms affect orchid seed loss." AoB Plants 5:plt018. https://doi.org/10.1093/aobpla/plt018
Non-native earthworms have invaded ecosystems around the world but have recently received increased attention as they invaded previously earthworm-free habitats in northern North America. Earthworms can affect plants by ingesting seeds and burying them in the soil. These effects can be negative or positive but are expected to become more negative with decreasing seed size. Orchids have some of the smallest seeds of any plants, so we hypothesized that earthworm consumption would decrease seed viability and lead to burial of ingested seeds. We used a combination of mesocosms and field measurements to determine whether native and non-native earthworms would affect G. pubescens seed germination by decreasing seed viability through digestion or burial. To determine soil depths at which seed burial would decrease chances of germination, we used field measurements of the abundance of mycorrhizal fungi needed for G. pubescens germination at different soil depths. We found that the combined effects of earthworm ingestion and burial would be expected to result in a loss of 49 % of orchid seeds in mature forests and 68 % of those in successional forests over an average year. Differences in seed ingestion and burial among soils from mature and successional forests were likely driven by differences in their ability to support earthworm biomass and not by differences in earthworm behaviour as a function of soil type. The combined effects of earthworm ingestion and burial have the potential to result in a substantial loss of orchid seeds, particularly in successional forests. This effect may slow the ability of orchids to recolonize forests as they proceed through succession. Determining whether this strong effect of earthworms on G. pubescens viability and germination also applies to other orchid species awaits further testing.