Earthworm Engineers #1 – Ecosystem Services

5184 3456 Sectormentor for Soils

Welcome to the first post in our Earthworm Engineers series where you can learn from some of the best science about the value of these amazing creatures. We’re so excited that Professor Jenni Dungait is now the editor of the European Journal of Soil Science – and she’s made some important earthworm papers open access for a month. We’ve picked our favourite four and summarised them in this blog series.

Access the earthworm archives in the European Journal of Soil Science, to learn more about the science behind on-farm worms!


#1: A review of earthworm impact on soil function and ecosystem services 

This paper reminds us of the many reasons why earthworms are farmers’ best friends. We can separate earthworm species into three categories: surface-dwelling worms (epigeic), deep-burrowing worms (anecic), and network-creating worms (endogeic). All three of these worm types play an important role. In their soils, earthworms are considered ‘ecosystem engineers’, and they earn this title for several reasons…

First, earthworms actually create soil! Worms feed on leaf litter on the soil surface then bury the organic matter into the soil, allowing it to be mixed and decomposed, and eventually incorporated as soil organic carbon within soil aggregates. This same process also allows for nutrient cycling in the soil, which is helped by the soils’ increased surface area due to the networks of earthworm channels. In eating soil and moving it around, worms have even been shown to heal soils that are polluted, by breaking down the contamination.

The presence of earthworms improves the soil structure, as the pore network created allows for a higher ‘bulk density’ of stable aggregates. This pore network can also improve plant root penetration, and the water infiltration ability of the soil, by creating space for the water. The increased drainage and the creation of water-stable soil aggregates can also reduce runoff on farms, as well as soil erosion by up to 50%.

Photo from Jackie Stroud’s Earthworm Quiz on wormscience.org

As earthworms burrow into the soil and bury organic carbon, they also help the process of carbon sequestration – the locking up of of CO2 from the air into the soil. But this soil carbon can be re-released again as greenhouse gases, especially when the soil is disturbed during ploughing. The process of building up carbon in the soil is complex, and varies depending on how much organic matter is available to the worms on the soil surface.

Considering all of these earthworm endeavours going on beneath our feet, it’s unsurprising that this paper finishes by reporting that the presence of earthworms has been widely shown to improve the growth of plants above ground. Now we’re completely convinced that earthworms really are the engineers of their ecosystem!