Dual stresses of flooding and agricultural land use reduce earthworm populations more than the individual stressors

Tamsyn Kiss, Xiaohui Chen, Jessica Ponting, Tom Sizmur, Mark Edward Hodson

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Global climate change is leading to a significant increase in flooding events in many countries. Current practices to prevent damage to downstream urban areas include allowing the flooding of upstream agricultural land. Earthworms are ecosystem engineers, but their abundances in arable land are already reduced due to pressure from farming practices. If flooding increases on agricultural land, it is important to understand how earthworms will respond to the dual stresses of flooding and agricultural land use. The earthworm populations under three land uses (pasture, field margin, and crops), across two UK fields, were sampled seasonally over an 18-month period in areas of the fields which flood frequently and areas which flood only rarely. Earthworm abundance in the crop and pasture soils and total earthworm biomass in the crop soils was significantly lower in the frequently flooded areas than in the rarely flooded areas. The relative percentage difference in the populations between the rarely and frequently flooded areas was greater in the crop soils ( 59.18% abundance, -63.49% biomass) than the pasture soils (-13.39% abundance, 9.66% biomass). In the margin soils, earthworm abundance was significantly greater in the frequently flooded areas (+140.56%), likely due to higher soil organic matter content and lower bulk density resulting in soil conditions more amenable to earthworms. The findings of this study show that earthworm populations already stressed by the activities associated with arable land use are more susceptible to flooding than populations in pasture fields, suggesting that arable earthworm populations are likely to be increasingly at risk with increased flooding.
Original languageEnglish
Article number142102
Number of pages7
JournalScience of the Total Environment
Early online date1 Sept 2020
Publication statusPublished - 1 Feb 2021

Bibliographical note

© 2020 Published by Elsevier B.V. This is an author-produced version of the published paper. Uploaded in accordance with the publisher’s self-archiving policy.


  • flooding
  • land use
  • earthworms
  • climate change
  • population dynamics

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