Termites can help reduce impact of drought

James Marshall
January 13, 2019

Termites are minuscule scourges to homeowners, but the wood-chomping critters are also masterful engineers.

Termites don't typically have a good reputation, but researchers of a new study found just how important they are to rainforests. The insects have an outsized impact on forest soils by helping control moisture in the dirt, a critical component to forest health that climate change and human impacts increasingly threaten. The results have confirmed the prediction of the famous Harvard University biologist, Professor E.O. Wilson, that termites are "one the little things that run the world", as they influence the processes that help plants, on which we all depend. Termites (above) generally require a moist environment and, when necessary, will dig down dozens of meters or more to bring water up to their living spaces, the scientists note.

Termites abound in tropical rainforests.

Joint lead author, Dr Louise Ashton from the University of Hong Kong and Natural History Museum said "Termites confer important ecosystem services, not only in pristine tropical rainforest, but in disturbed or even agricultural ecosystems, if termite abundance is reduced with disturbance, these habitats could be particularly sensitive to drought".

To try to understand the termites' role better, researchers of a new study published in Science got rid of termites in certain patches of land in a rainforest in Borneo by placing poisoned cellulose that left some plots almost devoid of all termites, and others unaffected.

The delay turned out to be serendipitous.

To conduct the study, the team removed termites from an area in Malaysian Borneo using baiting techniques, and then compared that patch to one with an unaffected amount of termites during the 2015-16 El Nino drought. They set out toilet paper-a favorite termite food-treated with a poison that only affected the termites and not any of the areas' other insects.

During the normal, non-drought years, researchers did not see much difference between the plots of land without termites and those without.

"What we found was the termite activity doubled during drought with them eating up to 40 percent more leaf litter", Evans said. And the termites' hustle and bustle increased the soil moisture. Here, however, we have shown that termites are essential in buffering the negative effects of drought in tropical rainforest. "This is the first time this has been discovered".

The greater number of termites during drought yielded a higher rate of leaf litter decomposition and nutrient heterogeneity, as well as increased soil moisture and seedling survival compared with the non-drought period. That said, their exact role in the ecosystem is still not established. Those stresses include drought but also other human impacts such as logging and conversion to agriculture. "Termites might only be small but collectively their presence can help reduce the effects of climate change in tropical systems".

Other reports by Click Lancashire

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