Invasibility of experimental grassland communities: the role of earthworms, plant functional group identity and seed size.
Invasions of natural communities by non-indigenous species threaten native biodiversity and are currently rated as one of the most important global-scale environmental problems. The mechanisms that make communities resistant to invasions and drive the establishment success of seedlings are essential both for management and for understanding community assembly and structure. Especially in grasslands, anecic earthworms are known to function as ecosystem engineers, however, their direct effects on plant community composition and on the invasibility of plant communities via plant seed burial, ingestion and digestion are poorly understood. In a greenhouse experiment we investigated the impact of Lumbricus terrestris, plant functional group identity and seed size of plant invader species and plant functional group of the established plant community on the number and biomass of plant invaders. We set up 120 microcosms comprising four plant community treatments, two earthworm treatments and three plant invader treatments containing three seed size classes. Earthworm performance was influenced by an interaction between plant functional group identity of the established plant community and that of invader species. The established plant community and invader seed size affected the number of invader plants significantly, while invader biomass was only affected by the established community. Since earthworm effects on the number and biomass of invader plants varied with seed size and plant functional group identity they probably play a key role in seedling establishment and plant community composition. Seeds and germinating seedlings in earthworm burrows may significantly contribute to earthworm nutrition, but this deserves further attention. Lumbricus terrestris likely behaves like a 'farmer' by collecting plant seeds which cannot directly be swallowed or digested. Presumably, these seeds are left in middens and become eatable after partial microbial decay. Increased earthworm numbers in more diverse plant communities likely contribute to the positive relationship between plant species diversity and resistance against invaders.