Animal ecosystem engineers modulate the diversity-invasibility relationship

  • Eisenhauer N
  • Milcu A
  • Sabais A
 et al. 
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BACKGROUND: Invasions of natural communities by non-indigenous species are currently rated as one of the most important global-scale threats to biodiversity. Biodiversity itself is known to reduce invasions and increase stability. Disturbances by ecosystem engineers affect the distribution, establishment, and abundance of species but this has been ignored in studies on diversity-invasibility relationships. METHODOLOGY/PRINCIPAL FINDINGS: We determined natural plant invasion into 46 plots varying in the number of plant species (1, 4, and 16) and plant functional groups (1, 2, 3, and 4) for three years beginning two years after the establishment of the Jena Experiment. We sampled subplots where earthworms were artificially added and others where earthworm abundance was reduced. We also performed a seed-dummy experiment to investigate the role of earthworms as secondary seed dispersers along a plant diversity gradient. Horizontal dispersal and burial of seed dummies were significantly reduced in subplots where earthworms were reduced in abundance. Seed dispersal by earthworms decreased with increasing plant species richness and presence of grasses but increased in presence of small herbs. These results suggest that dense vegetation inhibits the surface activity of earthworms. Further, there was a positive relationship between the number of earthworms and the number and diversity of invasive plants. Hence, earthworms decreased the stability of grassland communities against plant invasion. CONCLUSIONS/SIGNIFICANCE: Invasibility decreased and stability increased with increasing plant diversity and, most remarkably, earthworms modulated the diversity-invasibility relationship. While the impacts of earthworms were unimportant in low diverse (low earthworm densities) and high diverse (high floral structural complexity) plant communities, earthworms decreased the stability of intermediate diverse plant communities against plant invasion. Overall, the results document that fundamental processes in plant communities like plant seed burial and invader establishment are modulated by soil fauna calling for closer cooperation between soil animal and plant ecologists.

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