Plant community composition is affected by a wide array of soil organisms with diverse feeding modes and functions. Former studies dealt with the high diversity and complexity of soil communities by focusing on particular functional groups in isolation, by grouping soil organisms into body size classes or by using whole communities from different origins. Our approach was to investigate both the individual and the interaction effects of highly abundant soil organisms (microorganisms, nematodes and earthworms) to evaluate their impacts on grassland plant communities. Earthworms increased total plant community biomass by stimulating root growth. Nematodes reduced the biomass of grasses, but this effect was alleviated by the presence of earthworms. Non-leguminous forb biomass increased in the presence of nematodes, probably due to an alleviation of the competitive strength of grasses by nematodes. Microorganisms reduced the diversity and evenness of the plant community, but only in the absence of earthworms. Legume biomass was not affected by soil organisms, but Lotus corniculatus flowered earlier in the presence of microorganisms and the number of flowers decreased in the presence of nematodes. The results indicate that earthworms have a profound impact on the structure of grassland plant communities by counterbalancing the negative effects of plant-feeding nematodes on grasses and by conserving the evenness of the plant community. We propose that interacting effects of functionally dissimilar soil organisms on plant community performance have to be taken into account in future studies, since individual effects of soil organism groups may cancel out each other in functionally diverse soil communities.
Wurst, S., Allema, B., Duyts, H., & Van der Putten, W. H. (2008). Earthworms counterbalance the negative effects of microorganisms on plant diversity and enhance the tolerance of grasses to nematodes. Oikos, 117(5), 711-718. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.0030-1299.2008.16333.x