Differences in earthworm densities and nitrogen dynamics in soils under exotic and native plant species

P. S. Kourtev, W. Z. Huang, J. G. Ehrenfeld

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Previous studies of the invasion of two exotic plants - Berberis thunbergii and Microstegium vimineum - in hardwood forests of New Jersey have shown a significant increase of pH in soils under the invasive plants as compared with soils from under native shrubs (Vaccinium spp). We present a further investigation of soil properties under the exotic plants in question. We measured the densities of earthworms in the soil under the two exotics and the native shrubs in three parks in New Jersey. In the same populations we also measured the extractable ammonium and nitrate in the top 5 cm of the soil, as well as the respiration of the soils and the potential rates of mineralization (aerobic lab incubation). In addition, we measured the nitrate reductase activity in leaves of the two exotic plants and several native shrubs and trees. Although there were differences between parks, we observed significantly higher earthworm densities in the soil under the exotic species. The worms were all European species. Soil pH, available nitrate and net potential nitrification were significantly higher in soils under the two exotic species. In contrast, total soil C and N and net ammonification were significantly higher under native vegetation. Nitrate reductase activities were much higher in the leaves of exotic plants than in the leaves of native shrubs and trees. Changes in soil properties, especially the change in nitrogen cycling, associated with the invasion of these two plant species may permit the invasion of other weedy or exotic species. Our results also suggest that even if the two exotic species were removed, the restoration of the native flora might be inhibited by the high nitrate concentrations in the soil.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)237-245
Number of pages9
JournalBiological Invasions
Issue number2-3
StatePublished - 1999


  • Ammonium
  • Earthworms
  • Exotic plant species
  • Nitrate
  • Nitrate reductase
  • Nitrification
  • Soil respiration


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