Invading Earthworms Threaten Rare U.S. Fern. (Worm Attacks)

Article excerpt

In the ecological equivalent of the dreaded Klez Worm burrowing into computers around the world, European earthworms are eating enough leaf litter in North American forests to put a rare fern at risk of extinction.

An unusual study reports that the goblin fern (Botrychium mormo), an elusive species that pokes up from thick leaf litter on a forest floor, has disappeared from 9 out of 28 patches surveyed in Minnesota's Chippewa National Forest. Michael J. Gundale, now at the University of Montana in Missoula, also found that the normal forest carpet of fallen leaves was thin in all nine spots, and in eight of them, the forest floor was wriggling with the earthworm Lumbricus rubellus. In a lab test, these 3-to-4-centimeter-long worms proved capable of reducing a forest carpet to a balding remnant, Gundale reports in the December Conservation Biology.

"This is the first paper that looks at the response of a native plant to exotic, invasive earthworms," says Gundale.

Another chronicler of earthworm invasions, Patrick Bohlen of Archbold Biological Station in Lake Placid, Fla., welcomes the study. Although he and other scientists have studied what earthworms do to soil, "very little research has focused on the effects on plants," he notes.

North America north of a line from Massachusetts to Iowa has no native earthworms, Bohlen explains. Scientists presume that the last big glaciers creeping down from Canada wiped out any wormy ancestors, and southern species haven't advanced far into the territory.

When European settlers colonized the New World, earthworms came, too. Worms could have hitchhiked in soil used for ship ballast or in the root balls of plants. …