Invasion of the Earthworms

As an avid gardener, amateur fisherman, and a descendant of a long line of farmers, I have always held earthworms in high regard. These little ecosystem engineers are great for all of the above, right?

Not so fast! Things in life are never that simple! Let's start at the beginning. If you live in an area of North America where the glaciers once rested, there are no native terrestrial worms in your region. All of North America's native worm populations reside in the southeast and the Pacific northwest. All other worms species were wiped out by the glaciers. This means that, for millennia, northern NoNorth America's native ecosystem has evolved without the influence of any type of worms in the soil.

Shading = Glaciers  [1]

Shading = Glaciers [1]

When Europeans settled the continent, they brought with them earthworms, specifically those known as night crawlers and red wigglers, in the ballasts of their ships. Since then, these worms have been spread all over the continent by a wide range of human activities like farming, composting, and fishing. Since their introduction, many forests have been invaded by these annelids and are now suffering quite heavily from earthworm activities.

As I said above, any areas that experienced glaciation have evolved without the influence of worms. Because of this, forests in these regions have built up a large, nutrient-rich, layer of decomposing organic material commonly referred to as "duff" or "humus." Native trees, shrubs, and forbs rely on this slowly decomposing organic material to grow. It is high in nutrients and holds onto moisture quite well. When earthworms invade an area of a forest, they disrupt this rich, organic layer in quite a serious way.

Worms break through the duff and and distribute it deeper into the soil where tree and forb species can no longer access it. Worms also pull down and speed up the decomposition of leaves and other plant materials that normally build up and slowly create this rich organic soil. Finally, earthworm castings or poop actually speed up runoff and soil erosion.

All of this leads to seriously negative impacts on native ecosystems. As leaves and other organic materials disappear into the soil at an alarming rate via earthworms, important habitat and food is lost for a myriad of forest floor organisms. In areas with high earthworm infestations, there is a significant lack of small invertebrates like copepods. The loss of these organisms has rippling effects throughout the ecosystem as well. It has been shown that, through these activities, earthworms are causing declines in salamander populations.

It gets worse too. As earthworms speed up the breakdown of the duff or humus, our native plant species are suffering. They have evolved to germinate and grow in these rich, organic soils. They rely on these soils for survival. As the nutrient rich layers get redistributed by earthworms, native plant and tree populations are suffering. There is very little recruitment and, in time, many species are lost. Our spring ephemerals have been shown to be hit the hardest by earthworm invasions. Earthworms have also been shown to upset the mycorrhizal fungi networks which most plant species cannot live without.

Top Left: Forest soil horizons without earthworms; Top Right: Forest soil mixed due to earthworms; Bottom Left: Forest understory diversity without earthworms; Bottom Right: Forest understory diversity with earthworms. Credits: [1]

So, what can we do about this? Well, for starters, avoid introducing new populations of earthworms to your neighborhood. If you are using earthworms as bait, do not dump them out onto land when you're done. If you must get rid of them, dump them into the water. Also, if you are using worm castings in your garden, it has been recommended that you freeze them for about a week to assure that no eggs or small worms survive the ride. If you are bringing new plants onto your property, make sure to check their root masses for any worm travelers. Remember, no worms are native if you live in a once glaciated region.

Sadly, there is not much we have come up with at this point for dealing with the current earthworm invasion. What few control methods have been developed are not practical on a large scale and can also be as upsetting to the native ecology as the earthworms. The best bet we have is to minimize the cases of new introductions. Earthworms are slow critters. They do not colonize new areas swiftly. In fact, studies have shown that it takes upwards of 100 years for earthworm populations to migrate 1/2 mile! Armed with new knowledge and a little attention to detail, we can at least slow their rampage.

Photo Credit: Peter Hartl

Further Reading: [1] [2] [3] [4] [5] [6] [7] [8] [9] [10]

The Curious Case of Hawaii's Endemic Orchids

Orchids and Hawai'i are nearly synonymous. It may come as a surprise then to learn that only three species of orchid are native to this lush archipelago. In fact, there are more non-native species of orchids growing in Hawai'i than there are native. Like much of Hawai'i's endemic flora and fauna, these three distantly related orchid species find themselves on the brink of extinction. How and why only three species of orchid came to call Hawai'i home is a great mystery and it is one that conservationists are struggling to understand before it is too late. 

Orchids produce the smallest seeds of any plants. These dust-like propagules can travel far and wide on the slightest breeze. If any plants were to make it to one of the worlds most remote island chains my bet would be on the orchids. Alas, until settlers arrived, Hawai'i was home to only three - the Hawaiian bog orchid (Platanthera holochila), the Hawai'i jewel-orchid (Anoectochilus sandvicensis), and the Hawai'i widelip orchid (Liparis hawaiensis). The ancestors of these plants must have traveled quite a distance to get to these islands. The Hawaiian bog orchid, for instance, can trace its ancestry back to a related species of Platanthera native to the Aleutian Islands whereas the other two likely blew in from Asia. 

These three species were once found in a variety of locations. Today, however, all of that has changed. Populations of each of Hawai'i's endemic orchids are declining at a rapid rate. In fact, the Hawaiian bog orchid is considered one of the most endangered orchids in the world. The causes of their decline is what one would expect from an island species - habitat destruction, the introduction and subsequent spread of invasive species, and just poor land management in general. It is strange though that so many orchid species from elsewhere in the world are thriving as their endemic cousins are declining. 

Though the exact reasons for this remain uncertain, some of it has to do with another invader - honeybees. Honeybees are native to Europe and are generalists in their foraging abilities. Until bees were were brought to Hawai'i, many introduced orchid species behaved themselves. There simply wasn't anything around to pollinate them. Once honeybees came onto the scene, a few of these introduced species such as the bamboo orchid (Arundina graminifolia) were suddenly able to reproduce. The tropical climate made the land ripe for the taking. But this is only part of the picture. There is another, more interesting conundrum that remains to be solved. 

Orchids absolutely require mycorrhizal fungi to germinate and grow. Why is it then that introduced orchids seem to be doing so much better than the Hawaiian endemics? Good question. Some orchids can be very specific about the fungi they will partner with whereas others are not. It could be that all of the introduced orchids that are naturalizing are generalists whereas the endemics are specialists. It could also be that the endemics simply can't handle the altered disturbance regimes brought on by modern society.

The real reason is probably some combination of these and many more but the fact of the matter remains, Hawai'i's native orchids are in trouble. Since they are not nearly as showy as other orchids they are rather overlooked. This is a shame because if they are lost from their native range, they are gone from the world forever. Luckily there are people out there like Dr. Nicole Hynson of the University of Hawai'i and Dr. Larry Zettler of Illinois College who are working to understand, propagate, and conserve these unique species. 

Photo Credits: University of Hawai'i Museum (http://bit.ly/1K8pjKC), Arkive (http://bit.ly/20kxg17), and G. Daida (http://bit.ly/1K8phCw

Further Reading:
http://bit.ly/1PKOV0C

http://s.si.edu/1QRn0el

http://s.si.edu/1Rjwd1g

http://s.si.edu/1W8bGMb

http://www2.hawaii.edu/~nhynson/Hynson_Lab/Welcome.html

http://www.ic.edu/LarryZettler

Invasive Ants Destroy Plant Sex Lives

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For all of the amazing symbioses ants and plants share, there is one thing ants seem to get in the way of... plant sex. That's right, plants have found a use for ants in pretty much every way except for when it comes to reproduction (with some exceptions of course). Ants being what they are, they can easily become a force to be reckoned with. For this reason, many plant species have co-opted ants as defense agents, luring them in with nectar-releasing glands, a resource that ants guard quite heavily. 

When it comes to flowering, however, ants can become a bit overbearing. Research done at the University of Toronto shows that the invasive European fire ant has a tendency to guard floral nectar so heavily that they chase away pollinators. By observing fire ants and bumblebees, they found that ants change bumblebee foraging behaviors. The fire ants often harassed and attacked bumblebees as they visited flowers, causing them to spend significantly less time at each flower, a fact that could very well result in reduced pollination for the plant in question. 

This reduction in pollination is made even more apparent for dioecious plants. Since ants are after nectar and not pollen, male flowers received more bumblebee visits than nectar-producing female flowers. This could become quite damaging in regions with heavy fire ant infestations. 

As it turns out, the ants don't even need to be present to ward off bumblebees. The mere scent of ants was enough to cause bumblebees to avoid flowers. They apparently associated the ant smell with being harassed and are more likely to not chance a visit. Of course, this study was performed on using an invasive ant species. Because so many plant species recruit ants for things like protection and seed dispersal, it is likely that under natural conditions, the benefit of associating with ants far outweighs any costs to reproductive fitness. More work is needed to see if other ant specie exhibit such aggressive behavior towards pollinators. 

Photo Credit: Lalithamba (https://www.flickr.com/people/45835639@N04)

Further Reading:

 http://www.researchgate.net/profile/James_Thomson13/publication/259319739_Ants_and_Ant_Scent_Reduce_Bumblebee_Pollination_of_Artificial_Flowers/links/554b8fd90cf21ed213595eff.pdf

Of Grass and Spiders

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Spiders, toads, and grass. These three organisms seem kind of strange placed together in a single sentence. It would seem that the presence of each would have, if anything, marginal effects on the other. In healthy forests full of native species, this is the case. However, when new players enter the game, things are bound to change. As John Muir once said, “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.” As we grow to understand the natural world that we live in, the reality of this statement only becomes more apparent. 

The new player in this case is a grass. Microstegium vimineum, commonly referred to as Japanese stiltgrass, was introduced to the US sometime around 1919. Since then it has spread to over 16 states and is especially abundant in the southeast. It invades disturbed habitats and forms dense mats, which can completely displace native vegetation. It quickly rises to monoculture status and it is on the move. It is only a matter of time before it spreads well into the north. 

It’s not just vegetation that gets displaced either, most native insects don’t feed on M. vimineum. A monoculture of this grass is almost devoid of an insect community. However, there is one group of creepy crawlies that seems to have benefited from M. vimineum invasions. Wolf spiders are voracious predators. They eat a wide variety of insects and are certainly not above cannibalism. The dense carpets formed by M. vimineum offer security for wolf spiders. They can avoid one another and thus rise to abundance wherever this invasive grass grows. What few insects live in these stands quickly get gobbled up by the spiders. This is bad for yet another member of the forest community, the American toad. 

It has been noticed that, in forests where M. vimineum dominates, toads are on the decline. It was long thought that the lack of prey insects was the cause but recent research has pointed to a different culprit, the wolf spiders themselves. Aside from eating what little food can be found in the carpet of grass, they are also dining on young toads. Spider depredation on toads seems to be rather routine among the grass, so much so that toad survival decreased by 65% in these areas. To make matters worse, the effects of the invasive grass seem to be at their worst in areas that were once the best forests for toad survival. 

These findings are startling but by no means unique. The researchers are now going to look to see if this is happening to other amphibian species as well. At face value, it is not apparent how an invasive grass could affect toads but it is likely that instances like this are far more common than we even realize. 

Photo Credit: JAYNA L. DEVORE and JOHN C. MAERZ

Further Reading:

http://www.esajournals.org/doi/abs/10.1890/13-1715.1

http://www.nps.gov/plants/alien/pubs/midatlantic/mivi.htm