Earthworms affect plant growth and resistance against herbivores: A meta‐analysis

Zhenggao Xiao, Xie Wang, Julia Koricheva, Alan Kergunteuil, Renee-Claire Le Bayon, Manqiang Liu, Feng Hu, Sergio Rasmann

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1. Subterranean detritivores such as earthworms can increase soil nutrient availability through their burrowing and casting activities. A number of recent studies have explored whether these changes caused by earthworms may in turn affect plant performance and resistance to herbivores, but no formal synthesis of this literature has been conducted to date.

2. We here formally tested for the effects of earthworms on plant growth, resistance and chemical defence against insect herbivores by performing a meta-analysis of the existing literature up to 2016. We also explored ecological factors that might explain among-studies variation in the magnitude of the earthworm effects on plant growth and resistance.

3. We found that earthworm presence increases plant growth (by 20%) and nitrogen content (by 11%). Overall, earthworms did not affect plant resistance against chewing herbivores (caterpillars, slugs and rootworms), and even led to a 22% decrease in plant resistance against phloem-feeding herbivores (aphids). However, earthworm presence increased production of chemical defences by 31% when plants where attacked by cell-feeders (thrips), and resulted in an 81% increase in resistance against thrips. The magnitude of earthworm effects was stronger when earthworm inoculations consisted of a mix of species and ecological types, and when densities of earthworms were high.

4. These results suggest that earthworm presence is an important factor underlying natural variation in plant defences against herbivores, and call for a better integration of the soil fauna in the studies of plant-herbivore interaction, both for applied and fundamental research.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)150-160
Number of pages11
JournalFunctional Ecology
Issue number1
Early online date18 Aug 2017
Publication statusPublished - Jan 2018

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