Conventional tillage decreases the abundance and biomass of earthworms and alters their community structure in a global meta-analysis

Briones, María Jesús I.; Schmidt, Olaf. 2017 Conventional tillage decreases the abundance and biomass of earthworms and alters their community structure in a global meta-analysis. Global Change Biology, 23 (10). 4396-4419.

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The adoption of less intensive soil cultivation practices is expected to increase earthworm populations and their contributions to ecosystem functioning. However, conflicting results have been reported on the effects of tillage intensity on earthworm populations, attributed in narrative reviews to site-dependent differences in soil properties, climatic conditions and agronomic operations (e.g. fertilization, residue management and chemical crop protection). We present a quantitative review based on a global meta-analysis, using paired observations from 165 publications performed over 65 years (1950–2016) across 40 countries on five continents, to elucidate this long-standing unresolved issue. Results showed that disturbing the soil less (e.g. no-tillage and conservation agriculture [CA]) significantly increased earthworm abundance (mean increase of 137% and 127%, respectively) and biomass (196% and 101%, respectively) compared to when the soil is inverted by conventional ploughing. Earthworm population responses were more pronounced when the soil had been under reduced tillage (RT) for a long time (>10 years), in warm temperate zones with fine-textured soils, and in soils with higher clay contents (>35%) and low pH (<5.5). Furthermore, retaining organic harvest residues amplified this positive response to RT, whereas the use of the herbicide glyphosate did not significantly affect earthworm population responses to RT. Additional meta-analyses confirmed that epigeic and, more importantly, the bigger-sized anecic earthworms were the most sensitive ecological groups to conventional tillage. In particular, the deep burrower Lumbricus terrestris exhibited the strongest positive response to RT, increasing in abundance by 124% more than the overall mean of all 13 species analysed individually. The restoration of these two important ecological groups of earthworms and their burrowing, feeding and casting activities under various forms of RT will ensure the provision of ecosystem functions such as soil structure maintenance and nutrient cycling by “nature's plough.”

Item Type: Publication - Article
Digital Object Identifier (DOI):
UKCEH and CEH Sections/Science Areas: UKCEH Fellows
ISSN: 1354-1013
Additional Keywords: agricultural management, community composition, ecological groupings, Oligochaeta, tillage systems
NORA Subject Terms: Agriculture and Soil Science
Date made live: 28 Sep 2017 10:36 +0 (UTC)

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