An energy budget agent-based model of earthworm populations and its application to study the effects of pesticides

Alice Johnston, Mark Edward Hodson, Pernille Thorbek, Tania Alvarez, Richard Sibly

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Earthworms are important organisms in soil communities and so are used as model organisms in environ-mental risk assessments of chemicals. However current risk assessments of soil invertebrates are based on short-term laboratory studies, of limited ecological relevance, supplemented if necessary by site-specific field trials, which sometimes are challenging to apply across the whole agricultural landscape. Here, we investigate whether population responses to environmental stressors and pesticide exposure can be accurately predicted by combining energy budget and agent-based models (ABMs), based on knowledge of how individuals respond to their local circumstances. A simple energy budget model was implemented within each earthworm Eisenia fetida in the ABM, based on a priori parameter estimates .From broadly accepted physiological principles, simple algorithms specify how energy acquisition and expenditure drive life cycle processes. Each individual allocates energy between maintenance, growth and/or reproduction under varying conditions of food density, soil temperature and soil moisture. When simulating published experiments, good model fits were obtained to experimental data on individual growth, reproduction and starvation. Using the energy budget model as a platform we developed methods to identify which of the physiological parameters in the energy budget model (rates of ingestion, maintenance, growth or reproduction) are primarily affected by pesticide applications, producing four hypotheses about how toxicity acts. We tested these hypotheses by comparing model outputs with published toxicity data on the effects of copper oxychloride and chlorpyrifos on E. fetida. Both growth and reproduction were directly affected in experiments in which sufficient food was provided, whilst maintenance was targeted under food limitation. Although we only incorporate toxic effects at the individual level we show how ABMs can readily extrapolate to larger scales by providing good model fits to field population data. The ability of the presented model to fit the available field and laboratory data for E.fetida demonstrates the promise of the agent-based approach in ecology, by showing how biological knowledge can be used to make ecological inferences. Further work is required to extend the approach to populations of more ecologically relevant species studied at the field scale. Such a model could help extrapolate from laboratory to field conditions and from one set of field conditions to another or from species to species.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)5-17
Number of pages13
JournalEcological Modelling
Early online date24 Oct 2013
Publication statusPublished - 24 May 2014

Bibliographical note

Copyright © 2013 Published by Elsevier B.V. This is an open-access article distributed under a Creative Commons Attrbution 3.0 Unported licence, which permits use, distribution, an reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited.


  • earthworms
  • agent based models
  • population dynamics

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