Earthworms regulate plant productivity and the efficacy of soil fertility amendments in acid soils of the Colombian Llanos | Land Portal

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November 2018
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The Llanos region of Colombia represents one of the last large agricultural frontiers and is undergoing a rapid conversion from naturalized savanna to intensive agriculture with high agrochemical inputs and tillage. This massive land-use conversion has considerable impact on ecosystem services and biodiversity, particularly soil macrofauna, yet the full implications of this land-use shift for long-term agroecosystem productivity are poorly understood. To better elucidate potential land-use change impacts on agricultural production we used experimental microcosms in the greenhouse to evaluate how the common earthworm, Pontoscolex corethrurus, influences plant growth, nutrient uptake, and key soil properties relative to the application of lime and P fertilizer, both common soil fertility amendments in the region. Additionally, we aimed to explore the potential for interactions between earthworms and these amendments across distinct plant types, the grass Brachiaria decumbens and the legume Phaseolus vulgaris, which display different rooting patterns and nutrient acquisition strategies. Earthworms increased the biomass production of B. decumbens by 180% and N uptake by more than 240%, while P fertilizers and lime additions increased total biomass by less than 30% each for B. decumbens. Effects on P. vulgaris were similar, but less pronounced with earthworms increasing total biomass production by 35% and total plant N content by 70%, while neither lime nor P alone significantly influenced total biomass or N uptake. However, a significant interaction between earthworms and lime enhanced total biomass N content of P. vulgaris by more than 150% relative to microcosms without P. corethrurus, suggesting that earthworms can greatly enhance the efficacy of lime in soils. Additionally, we found that earthworms greatly improved soil aggregation, but only in the presence of plants, and that this effect was most prominent in microcosms with P. vulgaris. When testing treatment effects on soil P availability, only fertilizer P additions significantly influenced resin P, but not microbial biomass P. Our findings suggests the importance of developing management strategies that promote the activity and diversity of earthworms and other soil biota as a means to enhance crop productivity, resource use efficiency and a range of soil-based ecosystem services in the Llanos region and beyond.

Authors and Publishers

Author(s), editor(s), contributor(s): 

Fonte, Steven J.
Botero, Cesar
Quintero, Carolina
Lavelle, Patrick
van Kessel, Chris

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