Winter hatching in New England populations of invasive pheretimoid earthworms Amynthas agrestis and Amynthas tokioensis: a limit on population growth, or aid in peripheral expansion?
Some Asian megascolecid earthworms, e.g. Amynthas agrestis and Amynthas tokioensis, are highly invasive and have only recently been reported from natural ecosystems in the northeastern USA. There, they are annual earthworms that survive the winter as cocoons (an egg in a tough covering). Hatching occurs in mid-April when temperatures rise consistently above 10°C. In some years, winter temperatures also reach 10°C during short warming episodes, but hatchlings then are likely to die when temperatures drop again. To test this hypothesis, soil was collected on 7 sampling dates during January-May 2016 at one site in the Champlain Valley, Vermont and extracted for the cocoons. Both hatched and unhatched cocoons were enumerated and identified to species by both size and sequencing of the mitochondrial cytochrome c oxidase I gene (COI). A regression model on the number of unhatched cocoons over time predicted that - a quarter (A. agrestis) and - a third (A. tokioensis) would hatch before mid-May; no hatchlings were observed. Thus, hatching during warming periods in winter seemingly resulted in high mortality. Such winter hatching, and loss, may increase with climate warming in the region because winter warming periods should become more common. Climate warming could therefore reduce ability of the invasive earthworms to persist in northern habitats. Conversely, rapid hatching when the soil warms in spring could have an ecological benefit by allowing opportunities to expand at the thermal edge of the range as the climate continues to warm.