Potential effects of tillage and field borders on within-field spatial distribution patterns of earthworms

Loes Van Schaik*, Juliane Palm, Julian Klaus, Erwin Zehe, Boris Schröder

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

4 Citations (Scopus)


Earthworms play a key role in regulating soil ecosystem functions and services. The small scale variability in earthworm abundance is often found to be very high, which is a problem for representative sampling of earthworm abundance at larger scales. In agricultural fields, soil tillage may influence both the average earthworm abundance as well as the spatial distribution of earthworms. Therefore we studied the abundance and spatial pattern of the different ecological earthworm types, i.e. endogeic, epigeic and anecic earthworms, in four agricultural fields differing in soil tillage (two fields with regular tillage and two fields with conservation tillage) and surrounding land use (other cropped fields or apple orchard and forest). To this aim we sampled earthworms on a total number of 430 plots (50 × 50 cm2) using a combination of extraction with mustard solution and hand sorting. The results exhibit large differences in average earthworm abundance between the four fields. Only one of the two fields with conservation tillage had a comparatively very high overall abundance of earthworms. Furthermore, we found a high spatial variability of earthworms within the field scale often exhibiting a patchy distribution. We detected a trend of decreasing earthworm abundances from the field border into the field for different earthworm groups on each of the fields. In three fields with low total earthworm abundance (and only very few epigeic earthworms) there was a short scale autocorrelation with ranges varying strongly for the endogeic earthworms (37.9 m, 62.6 m, and 85.2 m) compared to anecic earthworms (19.8 m, 22.8 m, and 27.4 m). In the field with high abundance, after trend removal, the variogram models for anecic and endogeic earthworms were rejected based on their negative explained variances. On this field, we found only a short scale autocorrelation for the epigeic earthworms with a range of 143 m.Based on these results it seems that ploughing alone cannot explain the differences in abundance and range of autocorrelation found on the four fields. The trend of strongly decreasing earthworm abundance from the field border into the field in the one field with high abundance does indicate that the field border or surrounding land use may also influence the recolonization of fields, but more research is required to provide further evidence for this hypothesis. Due to the very different patterns of earthworm distributions in the fields it remains difficult to recommend an optimal number and distance of samples to obtain a representative earthworm abundance for the field scale.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)82-90
Number of pages9
JournalAgriculture, Ecosystems and Environment
Publication statusPublished - 15 Jul 2016
Externally publishedYes


  • Agricultural fields
  • Autocorrelation
  • Earthworms
  • Soil tillage
  • Spatial distribution

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