Phosphorus (P) is an important nutrient for plant growth. However, P is often poorly available for uptake by roots because it strongly adsorbs to the soil mineral phase. Recent research shows that earthworms can temporally and locally increase P availability to plants. However, the pathways through which they do so are not fully understood, and it remains unclear to what extent this capacity varies among earthworm species. Here we study the variation among earthworm species with respect to readily-available P in casts as well as other physico-chemical cast properties, in a greenhouse pot experiment using a soil with a low P status. The earthworms belong to eight commonly occurring earthworm species in the Netherlands: two epigeic species (a mixture of the compost earthworms Dendrobaena veneta/Eisenia fetida; Lumbricus rubellus); four endogeic species (Allolobophora chlorotica, Aporrectodea caliginosa, Aporrectodea rosea, Octolasion lacteum); and two anecic species (Aporrectodea longa; Lumbricus terrestris). For all species, the pH in water extracts of earthworm cast (pH = 7.4–8.2) was significantly higher (p < 0.001) than for the control bulk soil (pH = 6.6) and differed significantly (p = 0.003) among earthworm species. Similarly, the dissolved organic carbon (DOC) concentration in the same water extracts was an order of magnitude higher in earthworm cast compared to the control bulk soil and varied among species (p < 0.001). The size of the total pool of reversibly adsorbed P in earthworm cast was greater than in the control bulk soil, but no significant differences were found among earthworm species. Differences among species were present for the readily-available P pools extracted from casts, including P-Olsen and water-extractable ortho-P. Water-extractable ortho-P concentrations were much higher in the casts of all species as compared to the control bulk soil (0.9–6.8 vs 0.06 mg l−1 or to 9.0–68 vs 0.6 mg kg−1). Highest ortho-P levels were measured in L. rubellus casts and the lowest in casts of A. chlorotica. A positive correlation between the concentrations of DOC and ortho-P was observed (R2 = 0.72, p < 0.001). The observed variation in all measured physico-chemical cast properties could not be explained by conventional ecological earthworm classifications. Our results show that the nature and magnitude of earthworm-induced increased P availability differs dramatically among earthworm species. This strongly suggests that, apart from its size, species composition of the earthworm community is key to optimizing P availability to plants.
- Community composition
- Physico-chemical cast properties