Termites are a rainforest s best friend

Termites are a rainforest’s best friend

THE popular image of termites as timber-munching pests or builders of
towering nest mounds is badly in need of a makeover.

In tropical forests, the vast majority of termites conform to neither
stereotype, say researchers at the Natural History Museum in London. Instead,
most termites eat rotting vegetation in the soil and nest underground. They may
be as important to the survival of tropical forests as earthworms are to the
health of your garden.

Over the past five years, Paul Eggleton and his colleagues have been
measuring the biomass and biodiversity of organisms in soils in Cameroon, west
Africa. Soil-dwelling termites, many from species new to science, accounted for
more biomass than any other animal group. The total mass of the world’s termites
may be three times that of its human population, Eggleton told the BA. “Until
now nobody was aware of the enormous weight of termites underground, since they
are less obvious than their mound-building cousins,” says Richard Davies, a
member of the team.

These subterranean species dig intricate networks of tunnels, shifting the
soil and improving its aeration. By consuming rotting vegetation, they help to
recycle nutrients taken from the soil by trees and other plants. “Termites can
quite accurately be described as the earthworms of tropical soils,” says

Davies hopes the new findings will rid termites of their reputation as pests.
“Only a few species feed on wood,” he says.


Termites help to protect tropical forests during drought, study finds

Droughts can transform tropical forests. They kill trees and slow their growth. They also affect microbes that are critical to keeping the forest soil healthy. But termites, better known for their intricate mound-building skills and for chewing through wooden furniture, help tropical forests withstand drought, a new study has found.

Tiny termites are known to play big roles in tropical forests: they dig tunnels through the forest floor, and eat wood and leaf litter, moving moisture and mixing nutrients through the soil. Despite these roles, termites are an understudied group in ecology, says Louise Amy Ashton, assistant professor at the University of Hong Kong and lead author of the study published in Science.

Termites’ impacts on forests, especially during drought, which is increasing in severity and frequency across the tropics, has not been experimentally studied before. Ashton and colleagues had the opportunity to do just that during the El Niño drought of 2015-2016.

The team set up experimental plots within an old-growth tropical rainforest in the Maliau Basin Conservation Area in Sabah, Malaysia. In four of those plots, the researchers suppressed termite activity by both physically removing all termite mounds, and by applying insecticides and using poisoned toilet-paper rolls as bait to get rid of most wood- and leaf-litter-eating termites.

“The insecticide is active against all insects and other arthropods,” co-author Theodore Evans, an associate professor at the University of Western Australia, told Mongabay in an email. “However, the concentration used was so low, a lot of bait has to be eaten to reach a lethal dose, and so will work better against social species [like termites].

“Also, toilet paper is almost pure cellulose, so will be eaten only by animals that target cellulose, and undecomposed at that,” he added.

Poisoned toilet paper rolls were used to target termites. Image by Hannah Griffiths.

The team monitored termite activity in these “suppressed” plots and compared it with four control plots — similar plots where termite activity was not interfered with — both during and after drought.

Overall, termite activity was considerably lower in the plots where termites had been suppressed compared to the control plots. At the same time, other invertebrate groups hadn’t been affected much, meaning that any difference between the suppressed and control plots could be attributed to the termites themselves. “Up to now we didn’t have the methods to target suppression of termites,” co-author Kate Parr, a professor at the University of Liverpool, said in an email. “Our novel methods have enabled us to target the specific role of termites.”

During the course of their experiments, the team found that the number of termites in the control plots were more than double during drought compared to post-drought or when normal rains had resumed. Moreover, during drought conditions, increased termite activity led to considerably higher leaf litter decomposition, increased soil moisture, and greater diversity in soil nutrient distribution (which influences plant diversity in turn) in the control plots compared to the suppression plots. These differences were less stark in the post-drought conditions — suggesting that termites had an especially important role to play during drought.

Termite numbers increased during drought. Image by Theodore Evans.

So what caused termite numbers and activity to increase during drought? The researchers haven’t identified the exact cause, but they think that drought conditions possibly make the termites’ tunnels drier and less water-logged, making moving through the environment easier. The dry conditions could have also reduced competition from fungi, the other main decomposers in tropical forests.

“Fungi need to have water and food in the same place in order to survive and grow, which is why fungi do well in wet environments,” Evans said. “During dry periods, the food and water are separated, with the food (wood and litter) on the (dry) soil surface, and the water at depth (ground water). Termites carry water to their food and nests (they have special water sacs for this purpose), and so can be active and continue feeding during dry periods.”

The drought may also have suppressed the activity of ants, one of the main predators of termites, Parr said. This could, in turn, have had a positive effect on termites.

The increased activity of termites also had knock-on effects throughout the forest, the team found. The improved soil conditions created by the termites during drought translated to a 51 percent increase in seedling survival on the control plots compared to the suppression ones. This suggests that termites will have an important role to play in maintaining plant diversity in the future, given that the severity and frequency of droughts is predicted to increase with climate change.

What the study also shows is that “pristine rainforests have lots of termites that contribute to ecosystem health and resilience to drought,” said co-author Paul Eggleton, an entomologist at the Natural History Museum, London. “However, disturbed forests have fewer termites, and so will have lower ecosystem health and resilience.”

Parr said that since the team did not suppress all termites in their plots, the findings were, in fact, “a huge underestimate.”

“The true importance of termites is likely much greater!” she said.

Maliau river in the Maliau Basin Conservation Area. Image by Hannah Griffiths.

Banner image of tropical rainforest in Sabah, Malaysia, by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.


Termites Are a Rain Forest’s Ecological Insurance Policy

During a drought, wood-eating insects can be a jungle’s best friends.

Termites get a bad rap in the housing industry, but a recent study shows that they play an essential role in rain forests by buffering them during periods of drought.

“Only about three percent of termite species are pest species,” says Kate Parr, an ecologist and leader of the Funky Ant Lab at the University of Liverpool. Most of them serve critical ecological roles. Parr collaborated with the Natural History Museum of London to study what termites do for tropical environments such as Malaysian Borneo old-growth rain forests. It is known that they break down organic material, but no one knew the broader extent of their ecological functions.

When the study began in 2014, “we were going around supermarkets in Malaysia with trolleys piled high with toilet paper, getting crazy looks from people,” says Parr.

Cellulose-rich toilet paper is like termite junk food, and makes excellent bait. Researchers used the toilet paper to attract and poison termites so they could create areas with fewer termites than regular, healthy rain forest. They also broke down and removed the termite mounds in those areas. “It was pretty hard work,” says Parr. “You’re going through this patch of rain forest where there are millions of termites, breaking down their mounds and rolling them downhill.”

Termites help rain forests in Malaysian Borneo resist drought. Bernard Dupont/Flickr/CC-BY-2.0

When an El Niño drought struck the rain forests in 2015 and 2016, many plant and microbial species suffered. But termites thrived. They took over for the microbes usually responsible for turning the soil, and because different termite species have different palates—some like to eat wood, while others prefer leaf litter or even soil—they can create a richly varied nutrient quilt that promotes plant diversity.

The drought conditions also made it clear that termites help rain forests retain their water. Soil moisture in plots with termites was 36 percent higher than in those with suppressed termite populations. “In effect,” Parr says, “termites are acting as an ecological insurance to help us get through these stressful periods.”


What Eats Dampwood Termites Bug Do Eat In The Amazon Rainforest For

Author : Fay Amy.

Published : Thu, Dec 13 2018 :6 PM.

Often shelter tubesconstructed of soil particles cemented together by excrement or secretions from the mouth are used to connect the outside soil to a building and for crossing a concrete or metallic portion in a structure. The presence of a shelter tube is generally the first physical evidence of a termite infestation.

Subterranean termites are social insects, feeding on cellulose and living in colonies in the soil. These colonies are close to moisture, and can be readily relocated due to temperature or other environmental changes. Termites travel through soil, in wood itself, or through shelter tubes.

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In the termite colony there are generally several generations present. The colony is made up of several castes (forms) (larvae, nymphs, secondary and primary reproductives, soldiers and workers), who carry out specific duties or functions.

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A typical termite family will include soldiers. These have long heads and powerful jaws. Soldier termites defend the family unit. If you can find some soldier termites, this makes it easier to know whether you have a termite problem. Solders only make up part of the termite population so you will have to look carefully for them. Most termites are workers. These are about 2/5 inch long and are recognizable by their soft, light-colored bodies. They look a bit like moving grains of rice.


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