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Application of lime (CaCO3) to promote forest recovery from severe acidification increases potential for earthworm invasion

March 10, 2016

The application of lime (calcium carbonate) may be a cost-effective strategy to promote forest ecosystem recovery from acid impairment, under contemporary low levels of acidic deposition. However, liming acidified soils may create more suitable habitat for invasive earthworms that cause significant damage to forest floor communities and may disrupt ecosystem processes. We investigated the potential effects of liming in acidified soils where earthworms are rare in conjunction with a whole-ecosystem liming experiment in the chronically acidified forests of the western Adirondacks (USA). Using a microcosm experiment that replicated the whole-ecosystem treatment, we evaluated effects of soil liming on Lumbricus terrestris survivorship and biomass growth. We found that a moderate lime application (raising pH from 3.1 to 3.7) dramatically increased survival and biomass of L. terrestris, likely via increases in soil pH and associated reductions in inorganic aluminum, a known toxin. Very few L. terrestris individuals survived in unlimed soils, whereas earthworms in limed soils survived, grew, and rapidly consumed leaf litter. We supplemented this experiment with field surveys of extant earthworm communities along a gradient of soil pH in Adirondack hardwood forests, ranging from severely acidified (pH < 3) to well-buffered (pH > 5). In the field, no earthworms were observed where soil pH < 3.6. Abundance and species richness of earthworms was greatest in areas where soil pH > 4.4 and human dispersal vectors, including proximity to roads and public fishing access, were most prevalent. Overall our results suggest that moderate lime additions can be sufficient to increase earthworm invasion risk where dispersal vectors are present.

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