Invasive earthworms reduce chemical defense and increase herbivory and pathogen infection in native trees.
Recent research shows that earthworms can alter defense traits of plants against herbivores and pathogens by affecting soil biochemistry. Yet, the effects of invasive earthworms on defense traits of native plants from previously earthworm-free ecosystems as well as the consequences for multitrophic interactions are virtually unknown. Here we use a combination of an observational study and a complementary experimental study to investigate the effects of invasive earthworms on leaf defense traits, herbivore damage and pathogen infection in two poplar tree species (Populus balsamifera and Populus tremuloides) native to North American boreal forests. Our observational study showed that earthworm invasion was associated with enhanced leaf herbivory (by leaf-chewing insects) in saplings of both tree species. However, we only detected significant shifts in the concentration of chemical defense compounds in response to earthworm invasion for P. balsamifera. Specifically, leaf phenolic concentrations, including salicinoids and catechin, were lower in P. balsamifera from earthworm-invaded sites. Our experimental study confirmed an earthworm-induced reduction in leaf defense levels in P. balsamifera for one of the defense compounds, tremulacin. The experimental study additionally showed that invasive earthworms reduced leaf dry matter content, potentially increasing leaf palatability, and enhanced susceptibility of trees to infection by a fungal pathogen, but not to aphid infestation, in the same tree species. Synthesis. Our results show that invasive earthworms can decrease the concentrations of some chemical defense compounds in P. balsamifera, which could make them susceptible to leaf-chewing insects. Such potential impacts of invasive earthworms are likely to have implications for tree survival and competition, native tree biodiversity and ecosystem functioning.