When earthworms disappear, it endangers their predators, especially birds

British researchers are warning that one-third of earthworms in the UK have vanished

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The scientists have called it “Insectageddon”

The scientists presented their findings at the annual conference of the British Ecological Society, which showed that at least a third, between 33% and 41%, of earthworms have disappeared from UK soils in the last 25 years, based on data from around 100 previous studies.

Professor James Pearce-Higgins, the scientific director of the British Trust for Ornithology, who conducted the research, expressed concern about the evidence of a long-term decline in earthworms. He even referred to it as a “large-scale decline in soil biodiversity” in his remarks to the British media.

The disappearance of earthworms, which could affect the entire soil ecosystem, is a cause of concern. The loss of these creatures can have consequences on soil fertility, where they play a crucial role in making nutrients available for plants, whether cultivated or wild. Additionally, earthworms are essential links in the interconnected food chains of trophic networks, serving as prey for birds such as thrushes, starlings, and various waders.

What makes earthworms disappear?

While hotter and drier summers in the south-east of the UK are being blamed for the decline in earthworms, the main culprit is conventional agriculture, according to the study. The researchers observed a greater decline in earthworms in agricultural land and deciduous forests, whereas wilder lands at higher altitudes, further from human activity, appeared to be less affected.

According to Dr. Ailidh Barnes, a researcher at the British Trust for Ornithology, the decline in earthworm populations in the UK is likely due to changes in the countryside over the last century. These changes include large-scale drainage, the use of pesticides, and the application of synthetic fertilizers, which have negatively impacted earthworm populations. Dr. Barnes also mentioned the negative effects of plowing, a tillage technique that involves turning and loosening the soil.

While conventional agriculture practices are the main cause of the decline in earthworm populations in the UK, there are other factors at play. Dr. Matt Shardlow, a spokesperson for the NGO Buglife, notes that the decline within hardwood forests and rangelands suggests that climate change and soil pollution from livestock wormers are also contributing to the loss of biodiversity. This comes as Buglife’s latest report reveals that two-thirds of flying insects have vanished in the UK.

Better document the decline of earthworms

The researchers behind the study intend to initiate a scientific surveillance scheme focused on earthworms to gather more accurate data on their reduction.

We need to be concerned about the fate of subterranean biodiversity to preserve what we see above ground. Let’s prioritize the protection of earthworms, emphasized Professor Pearce-Higgins.

A new citizen science program called “QUBS” has been launched in France, in partnership with various institutions such as the Paul-Valéry Montpellier 3 University, Sorbonne University, the National Museum of Natural History in Paris, the University of Lorraine/INRAE, and the Plante & Cité association in Angers.

Focused exclusively on soil biodiversity, including earthworms, ants, and other small creatures, this ambitious project, known as “QUBS,” aims to gather valuable information on the rich, but endangered, life that lurks beneath our feet.

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