Carbon availability controls the growth of detritivores (Lumbricidae) and their effect on nitrogen mineralization

Oecologia. 2004 Jan;138(1):83-90. doi: 10.1007/s00442-003-1391-4. Epub 2003 Oct 3.


Activity of soil decomposer microorganisms is generally limited by carbon availability, but factors controlling saprophagous soil animals remain largely unknown. In contrast to microorganisms, animals are unable to exploit mineral nutrient pools. Therefore, it has been suggested that soil animals, and earthworms in particular, are limited by the availability of nitrogen. In contrast to this view, a strong increase in density and biomass of endogeic earthworms in response to labile organic carbon addition has been documented in field experiments. The hypothesis that the growth of endogeic earthworms is primarily limited by carbon availability was tested in a laboratory experiment lasting for 10 weeks. In addition, it was investigated whether the effects of earthworms on microbial activity and nutrient mineralization depend on the availability of carbon resources. We manipulated food availability to the endogeic earthworm species Octolasion tyrtaeum by using two soils with different organic matter content, providing access to different amounts of soil, and adding labile organic carbon (glucose) enriched in (13)C. Glucose addition strongly increased the growth of O. tyrtaeum. From 8 to 17% of the total C in earthworm tissue was assimilated from the glucose added. Soil microbial biomass was not strongly affected by the addition of glucose, though basal respiration was significantly increased and up to 50% of the carbon added as glucose was incorporated into soil organic matter. The impact of earthworms on the mineralization and leaching of nitrogen depended on C availability. As expected, in C-limited soil, the presence of earthworms strongly increased nitrogen leaching. However, when C availability was increased by the addition of glucose, this pattern was reversed, i.e. the presence of O. tyrtaeum decreased nitrogen leaching and its availability to soil microflora. We conclude that irrespective of the total carbon content of soils, O. tyrtaeum was primarily limited by carbon, and that increased carbon availability allowed earthworms to be more effective in mobilizing N. The presence of earthworms increases C limitation of soil microorganisms, due to increased availability of N and P in earthworm casts or a direct depletion of easily available carbon resources by earthworms.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Biological Availability
  • Carbon / analysis*
  • Carbon / metabolism*
  • Carbon Isotopes / analysis
  • Nitrogen / metabolism*
  • Oligochaeta*
  • Phosphorus / metabolism*
  • Population Dynamics
  • Soil
  • Soil Microbiology*


  • Carbon Isotopes
  • Soil
  • Phosphorus
  • Carbon
  • Nitrogen