Linking direct and indirect pathways mediating earthworms, deer, and understory composition in Great Lakes forests

Nicholas A. Fisichelli, Lee E. Frelich, Peter B. Reich, Nico Eisenhauer

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

44 Scopus citations

Abstract

Ahistorical drivers such as nonnative invasive earthworms and high deer densities can have substantial impacts on ecosystem processes and plant community composition in temperate and boreal forests of North America. To assess the roles of earthworm disturbance, deer, and environmental factors in the understory, we sampled 125 mixed temperate-boreal forest sites across the western Great Lakes region. We utilized structural equation modeling (SEM) to address the hypothesis that earthworm disturbance to the upper soil horizons and selective herbivory by deer are associated with depauperate understory plant communities dominated by graminoid and nonnative species. Evidence of earthworm activity was found at 93 % of our sites and 49 % had high to very high severity earthworm disturbance. The SEM fit the data well and indicated that widespread nonnative earthworm disturbance and high deer densities had similar magnitudes of impact on understory plant communities and that these impacts were partially mediated by environmental characteristics. One-third of the variation in earthworm disturbance was explained by soil pH, precipitation, and litter quality. Deer density and earthworm disturbance both increased graminoid cover while environmental variables showed direct and indirect relationships. For example, the positive relationship between temperature and graminoids was indirect through a positive temperature effect on deer density. This research characterizes an integrated set of key environmental variables driving earthworm disturbance and deer impacts on the forest understory, facilitating predictions of the locations and severity of future change in northern temperate and boreal forest ecosystems.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1057-1066
Number of pages10
JournalBiological Invasions
Volume15
Issue number5
DOIs
StatePublished - Jan 1 2013

Keywords

  • Carex pensylvanica
  • Climate
  • Deer browsing
  • Earthworm invasion
  • Forest soils
  • Graminoid cover
  • Invasive plants
  • Understory plant community

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