Can the invasive earthworm, Amynthas agrestis, be controlled with prescribed fire?
Biological invasions are one of the most significant global-scale problems caused by human activities. Earthworms function as ecosystem engineers in soil ecosystems because their feeding and burrowing activities fundamentally change the physical and biological characteristics of the soils they inhabit. As a result of this "engineering," earthworm invasions can have significant effects on soil physical, chemical and biological properties. The species Amynthas agrestis (family Megascolecidae) was introduced to the United States from Asia, and has expanded its distribution range to include relatively undisturbed forests. Here, to clarify life history traits, we reared individuals under seven different conditions of food provision using litter, fragmented litter and soil, and also analyzed the stable isotope ratios of field-collected specimens to investigate their food resources in the field. Second, we examined whether prescribed fire can be used to manage invasive earthworms. We constructed eight experimental plots, each with 100 individuals of A. agrestis each, and burned half of the plots. The feeding experiment showed that the earthworms in units containing soil and some form of organic matter (litter and/or fragmented litter) produced many cocoons, indicating that litter and fragmented litter are important food resources for them. Stable isotope analyses also supported this result. During the experimental fires, average soil temperature at 5 cm depth increased by only 7.7°C (average maximum of 32.2°C). Litter mass was significantly reduced by the fires. Although numbers of A. agrestis and cocoons recovered from burned and unburned plots were not different, the viability of cocoons was significantly lower in burned plots. Fire may also reduce the survival rate of juveniles in the next year by depriving them of their preferred food resource. Most native earthworms in the United States live in the soil, while many invasive ones live in the litter layer and soil surface. Therefore, prescribed fire could be a viable tool for control of invasive earthworms without negatively impacting native earthworm populations.