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Combining bulk and amino acid stable isotope analyses to quantify trophic level and basal resources of detritivores: a case study on earthworms

  • Anton M. PotapovEmail author
  • Alexei V. Tiunov
  • Stefan Scheu
  • Thomas Larsen
  • Melanie M. Pollierer
Plant-microbe-animal interactions – original research


Quantification of the bacterial, fungal, and plant energy channels to the nutrition of detritivores is methodologically challenging. This is especially true for earthworms that ingest large amounts of litter and soil mixed with microorganisms. Novel methods such as compound-specific stable isotope analysis (CSIA) of C and N of individual amino acids promise major progress in this field in comparison with bulk stable isotope analysis (bulk SIA). Here, we combine CSIA and bulk SIA of carbon and nitrogen to quantify the linkage of epigeic and endogeic earthworm species to different energy channels across boreal and temperate forest ecosystems. The results showed pronounced flux of energy directly from plants to earthworms (33–50% of essential amino acids, EAA) refining the position of earthworms in soil food webs as both competitors and consumers of microorganisms. Epigeic earthworm species primarily relied on plant litter and endogeic species primarily relied on bacteria and soil organic matter. The linkage of both groups to plant or microbial energy channel was likely driven by the quality of detritus. Both bulk 15N and 13C enrichments were related to the trophic level of earthworms. Furthermore, 15N enrichment was related to the proportions of bacterial and plant EAA in the diet. Strong negative correlation between trophic level (CSIA of nitrogen) and the proportion of plant EAA (CSIA of carbon) suggests that both novel methods can indicate the degree of microbivory in detritivores. CSIA of amino acids provide detailed and baseline-independent information on basal resources and trophic levels of detritivores.


Soil food web Microbivory Decomposers Methods comparison Energy channels 



We thank Jens Dyckmans (Kompetenzzentrum Stabile Isotope, University of Göttingen) for stable isotope analysis of amino acids. The study was supported by the German Research Foundation (DFG, projects MA 7145/1-1 and SBF990). Field work in Russia was supported by the Russian Foundation for Basic Research (project #16-04-01878a).

Author contribution statement

AT, AP, and MP designed the study and performed the field sampling. AP and MP conducted the laboratory work. AP, MP, and TL analyzed the data. AP wrote the manuscript. SS, AT, TL, and MP revised the manuscript.

Compliance with ethical standards

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

Supplementary material

442_2018_4335_MOESM1_ESM.pdf (167 kb)
Supplementary material 1 (PDF 167 kb)


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag GmbH Germany, part of Springer Nature 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.J.F. Blumenbach Institute of Zoology and AnthropologyUniversity of GöttingenGöttingenGermany
  2. 2.A.N. Severtsov Institute of Ecology and EvolutionRussian Academy of SciencesMoscowRussia
  3. 3.Centre of Biodiversity and Sustainable Land UseUniversity of GöttingenGöttingenGermany
  4. 4.Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human HistoryJenaGermany

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