Role of the anecic earthworm Lumbricus terrestris L. in the distribution of plant residue nitrogen in a corn (Zea mays)-soil system

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While the benefits of earthworms to crop production are widely acknowledged, the mechanisms involved are poorly understood. We examined the effects of an anecic earthworm (Lumbricus terrestris) on the distribution of plant residue N in a corn (Zea mays)/soil system. Soil (mixed Ap and B horizons) mesocosms (10 cm diameter, 39 cm deep) were amended with 15N-labeled corn litter, inoculated with one earthworm per mesocosm (WORM) or none (CTRL), and pre-incubated for 1, 2 or 3 weeks. Earthworms and remaining plant residues were removed and sweet corn grown in the mesocosms in a greenhouse for 3 weeks. Litter, earthworms, shoots, roots and bulk and burrow soil were analyzed for total N and 15N. Plant and earthworm biomass were also determined. Earthworms had no significant effect on the N content of shoots, roots or bulk soil. Recovery of 15N ranged from 92.6 to 101.9% in CTRL and 60.2 to 83.2% in the WORM treatment. The 15N content of bulk soil in the WORM treatment was significantly higher than in CTRL and increased with pre-incubation time. Excess at.% 15N of burrow soil was 10-100 times higher than in bulk soil. Incorporation of 15N by shoots and roots was significantly higher in the WORM treatment and increased significantly with pre-incubation time only in the WORM treatment. In WORM mesocosms pre-incubated for 3 weeks, the distribution of added 15N was 9.8% in litter, 6.5% in plant, 31.5% in soil, 12.0% in earthworms and 39.8% presumably lost as gas; in CTRL mesocosms, the values were 75.7% in litter, 3.2% in plant, 13.7% in soil and 7.4% in presumed gas losses. The activities of L. terrestris altered the distribution of plant residue N significantly, increasing the transfer of N to plants and soil and enhancing losses of N in the gas phase as pre-incubation time increased. © 2005 Elsevier B.V. All rights reserved.

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Applied Soil Ecology