Currently, the driving factors of active earthworm dispersal across the soil surface are not sufficiently
understood, and distances traversed by individual earthworms have rarely been quantified. Research progress has been hampered by the lack of adequate observation methods as well as fast, objective and quantitative measurements of nocturnal earthworm behaviour.
In this work, we report on the potential of a new, automated method using infrared-sensitive webcams and computer image analysis. Nightly surface activities of Lumbricus terrestris L. were monitored quantitatively while manipulating levels of disturbance, burrow availability and congener presence in standard observation units.
The automated observation system proved to be simple and inexpensive to build, provided reliable quantitative measures of locomotive behaviour without animal isturbance, and considerably reduced human workload and bias.
Waterlogging of the burrow zone stimulated surface ctivities around and away from the home burrow as compared to habitat disturbance by pesticide application and vibration. However, dispersing earthworms never settled in prefabricated burrows. Surface activity of individuals subjected to waterlogged conditions was influenced by the availability of alternative habitat. Minimal habitat disturbance (vibration) and the presence of conspecific individuals resulted in an increased amount of burrow-anchored, possibly sexually oriented, behaviour, but reciprocal burrow visits and mating were not observed. Pesticide application did not result in dispersal, increased foraging activities or sexual attraction attempts during this short-term study.
The presence, extent and mechanisms of the remote assessment of important cues in the surroundings of the home burrow by L. terrestris need further research. Infrared monitoring opens new research avenues of earthworm surface behaviour studies (e.g. density-dependent dispersal, habitat selection, (re)colonization, invasion).