Earthworm distributions are not driven by measurable soil properties. Do they really indicate soil quality?

Mark Edward Hodson, Ron Corstanje, David Jones, Joanna Thompson Witton, Victoria Burton, Thomas Sloan, P Eggleton

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Abundance and distribution of earthworms in agricultural fields is frequently proposed as a measure of soil quality assuming that observed patterns of abundance are in response to improved or degraded environmental conditions. However, it is not clear that earthworm abundances can be directly related to their edaphic environment, as noted in Darwin’s final publication, perhaps limiting or restricting their value as indicators of ecological quality in any given field. We present results from a spatially explicit intensive survey of pastures within United Kingdom farms, looking for the main drivers of earthworm density at a range of
scales. When describing spatial variability of both total and ecotype-specific earthworm abundance within any given field, the best predictor was earthworm abundance itself within 20–30 m of the sampling point; there were no consistent environmental correlates with earthworm numbers, suggesting that biological factors (e.g. colonisation rate, competition, predation, parasitism) drive or at least significantly modify earthworm distributions at this spatial level. However, at the national scale, earthworm abundance is well predicted by soil nitrate levels, density, temperature and moisture content, albeit not in a simple linear fashion.
This suggests that although land can be managed at the farm scale to promote earthworm abundance and the resulting soil processes that deliver ecosystem services, within a field, earthworm distributions will remain patchy. The use of earthworms as soil quality indicators must therefore be carried out with care, ensuring that sufficient samples are taken within field to take account of variability in earthworm populations that is unrelated to soil chemical and physical properties.
Original languageEnglish
Article numbere0241945
Number of pages17
JournalPLOS one
Issue number8
Publication statusPublished - 30 Aug 2021

Bibliographical note

© 2021 Hodson et al


  • earthworm
  • soil health
  • soil quality
  • spatial analysis
  • soil biology

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