Termites engineer their environments in ways that allow the area around their mounds to be buffered from climatic changes.
That is the intriguing conclusion of a recent study published in the journal Science; providing at least one possible answer to anyone wondering about any benefits of termites relative to the environment.
The study, which focused on fungus-growing termites of the genus Odontotermes, noted that the termites’ mounds act as valuable stores of moisture and nutrients in the dry grasslands and savannas of Africa, South America, and Asia. Furthermore, their subterranean tunnels can provide effective conduits that allow water to penetrate the dry soil where it can be reached by the roots of nearby plants. The net result is that vegetation in close proximity to the mounds can flourish in an area that would otherwise be vulnerable to periods of reduced rainfall.
But the buffering capacity of termite mounds with respect to the health of neighboring vegetation may extend beyond just periodic shifts in the amount of rainfall. The researchers argue that the presence of termites and their environmental engineering may provide a means of buffering environments against larger, more destructive trends like desertification.
Desertification is the process by which environments gradually become more and more arid. In the process, the area begins to lose much of its vegetation along with most of its water bodies. The soil typically becomes unstable, much of the wildlife may become displaced and eventually, the ecosystem in (its prior form) collapses and a desert is formed.
According to the researchers, this disastrous process may be buffered, in part, by the presence of termite mounds. So strong is the effect, that according to co-author Corina Tarnita, “even when you get to such harsh conditions where vegetation disappears from the mounds, re-vegetation is still easier. As long as the mounds are there the ecosystem has a better chance to recover.”
So let’s hear it for the termites!…so long as they stay out of my floor supports.
- J. A. Bonachela, R. M. Pringle, E. Sheffer, T. C. Coverdale, J. A. Guyton, K. K. Caylor, S. A. Levin, C. E. Tarnita. Termite mounds can increase the robustness of dryland ecosystems to climatic change. Science, 2015; 347 (6222): 651 DOI:10.1126/science.1261487
- Tiny termites can hold back deserts by creating oases of plant life – Princeton University
- Termites May Help to Prevent Desertification – Entomology Today