Dr. Kathryn Flinn and students in the field

Students contribute to original research that seeks to understand how earthworms are both friend to farmer and foe to forest.

BW biology faculty, students study impact of invasive earthworms on native plants

October 15, 2016

The earthworm, friend to fisherman, farmer and gardener, turns out to be a potential enemy of the forest, damaging and altering the woodland understory and native plants. With the aim of contributing to national research on the threat of invasive earthworms, BW biology students are collecting and studying specimens from local parklands.

“It’s not widely known, but a majority of earthworms found locally are actually European, and can have negative impacts on forests, even though they may have positive impacts in gardens and farms,” said BW biology professor Kathryn Flinn, Ph.D. “BW students are currently investigating what proportion of earthworms are native versus invasive in different habitats. This original research contributes to a nationwide project on the distribution of earthworm species.”

Contributing to original research as freshmen

BW students collect earthworms near Wallace LakeOn a recent sunny autumn day, Dr. Flinn led students in field collection of worms in carefully plotted locations around Wallace Lake. Teams of mostly freshmen poured a mustard water mixture into the soil and then waited for various species of worms to wriggle to the surface.

"It’s fun getting out of the classroom,” said Riley Schill ‘20, a biology major from Sheffield Village, Ohio. Elizabeth Bryson ‘20, a biology major from Lyndhurst, Ohio added, “It’s a great feeling; we didn’t expect that as freshmen we’d have the opportunity to participate in research that is making a difference.”

Potent harm to woodland plants

Among the invasives the students may find are Asian jumping worms, a robust species that has shown up more frequently at local sites over the past decade. BW Summer Scholar Agrima Pradhan ’17 investigated how these more recent invaders may impact seeds stored in the soil. Nidia Arguedos, Ph.D., a Cleveland Metroparks conservation planner, calls the Asian species, “fantastic,” “incredible,” “muscular” and “very damaging.”

Dr. Arguedos says research like the BW student projects should help scientists understand the role of earthworms in the decline of woodland plants, like spring flowering trillium, which require a slowly decomposing collection of leaves to germinate. Plant ecologists suspect invasive earthworms are speeding up the decomposition, helping to create an inhospitable environment for these tender native plants.

The Flinn Lab explores earthworms, ginseng and more

Dr. Kathryn Flinn and students in the fieldDr. Flinn integrates earthworm research into her introductory biology course. She is also working with student Tylor Mahany ’19 to map the distributions of trees across northeast Ohio in the 1790s, and she recently authored a piece on The Conversation titled, “How a native plant ended up on reality TV, and why it’s at risk.” This story of her research into disappearing native ginseng was picked up by the Associated Press, Huffington Post and other media outlets across the country.

Read more about Dr. Flinn's research, which has been published in top ecological journals, on The Flinn Lab website.

  • BW students collect earthworms near Wallace Lake
  • BW students collect earthworms near Wallace Lake
  • BW students collect earthworms near Wallace Lake
  • BW students collect earthworms near Wallace Lake
  • BW students collect earthworms near Wallace Lake
  • BW students collect earthworms near Wallace Lake