Earthworms digest the leaves even if the plants have released toxic materials to deter the herbivores.
Scientists recently discovered earthworms can digest leaves and other dead plant material. According to scientists earthworms have such a degree of dead leaves digestion it rivals other herbivores.
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Earthworms can even digest fallen leaves if they contain toxic materials. Toxic materials are usually released by plants to discourage herbivores from eating plant leaves.
In a way earthworms are mainly responsible for returning the carbon content from dead plants back into the soil. The research on the earthworms was carried out at the Imperial College London.
According to the lead researchers molecules in the earthworm gut enable leaves digestions. The molecules also counteract the effect of the toxic materials.
The results of the study were published today. The paper has been published in the journal Nature Communications. The study has been backed up by the University of Oxford, and Cardiff University.
The molecules found in earthworm gut have been named drilodefensins. Apparently, plenty of drilodefensins are present within the earthworms. Drilodefensins are responsible for the recycling of carbon in soil in nature. Without drilodefensins the carbon cycle would be disturbed.
Dr Bundy, from the Department of Surgery and Cancer at Imperial, said: "Without drilodefensins, fallen leaves would remain on the surface of the ground for a very long time, building up to a thick layer. Our countryside would be unrecognisable, and the whole system of carbon cycling would be disrupted."
The toxic materials released by plants are called Polyphenols. Polyphenols are antioxidants which prevent many herbivores from digesting plants. Drilodefensins can counteract polyphenols thus enabling them to digest plant material. The more Polyphenols an earthworm consumes, the rate of drilodefensins also increases.
The presence of drilodefensins was discovered in the earthworm gut through mass spectrometry. Drilodefensin are the reason earthworms are dubbed the ‘ecosystem engineers’ of the carbon cycle.
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Dr Dave Spurgeon of the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology is a co-author on the paper. He said: "We've established that earthworms, referred to as 'nature's ploughs' by Charles Darwin, have a metabolic coping mechanism to deal with a range of leaf litter diets. In this role, drilodefensin support the role of earthworm as key "ecosystem engineers" within the carbon cycle."