Earthworm distribution and abundance predicted by a process-based model

A.S.A. Johnston, M Holmstrup, Mark Edward Hodson, P Thorbek, T Alvarez, Richard Sibly

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Earthworms are significant ecosystem engineers and are an important component of the diet of many vertebrates and invertebrates, so the ability to predict their distribution and abundance would have wide application in ecology, conservation and land management. Earthworm viability is known to be affected by the availability and quality of food resources, soil water conditions and temperature, but has not yet been modelled mechanistically to link effects on individuals to field population responses. Here we present a novel model capable of predicting the effects of land management and environmental conditions on the distribution and abundance of Aporrectodea caliginosa, the dominant earthworm species in agroecosystems. Our process-based approach uses individual based modelling (IBM), in which each individual has its own energy budget. Individual earthworm energy budgets follow established principles of physiological ecology and are parameterised for A. caliginosa from experimental measurements under optimal conditions. Under suboptimal conditions (e.g. food limitation, low soil temperatures and water contents) reproduction is prioritised over growth. Good model agreement to independent laboratory data on individual cocoon production and growth of body mass, under variable feeding and temperature conditions support our representation of A. caliginosa physiology through energy budgets. Our mechanistic model is able to accurately predict A. caliginosa distribution and abundance in spatially heterogeneous soil profiles representative of field study conditions. Essential here is the explicit modelling of earthworm behaviour in the soil profile. Local earthworm movement responds to a trade-off between food availability and soil water conditions, and this determines the spatiotemporal distribution of the population in the soil profile. Importantly, multiple environmental variables can be manipulated simultaneously in the model to explore earthworm population exposure and effects to combinations of stressors. Potential applications include prediction of the population-level effects of pesticides and changes in soil management e.g. conservation tillage and climate change.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)112-123
Number of pages12
JournalApplied Soil Ecology
Early online date19 Jul 2014
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2014

Bibliographical note

© 2014 The Author. Published by Elsevier B.V. This is an open access article under the Creative Commons Attribution license (


  • individual based model
  • earthworm
  • energy budget
  • food availability
  • soil water potential
  • local movement

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