From: David A Gabel, ENN
Published May 26, 2010 11:31 AM

Termite Power

Humans have the unparalleled ability of altering their environment to suit their needs. We have shaped the entire face of the planet, from the densest cities to the rural countryside. Yet, on their own small level, other creatures in the animal kingdom can affect their environment as well. Amazingly, a tiny organism like the termite can create a huge effect.

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What better place to observe this power than in the African Savannah, home to much of the world’s mega fauna such as the elephant, giraffe, lion, ostrich, zebra, antelope, hippopotamus, and many more mammals, birds, and reptiles. However, it is not these great beasts that dominate the landscape. It is the lowly termite, capable of building large structures and increasing the overall production of the grassland ecosystem.

A study recently published in the journal PLoS Biology looks into termite's impact on the savannah in Kenya. "One of the kind of typical things I think that people think about is, what drives a savanna in terms of its structure and function?" said Todd Palmer, one of the paper's authors and an assistant professor of biology at the University of Florida. "We think about big animals, but these termites are having a massive impact on the system from below."

Robert M. Pringle, a research fellow at Harvard University and the lead author, said "As (famed biologist) E.O. Wilson likes to point out, in many respects it's the little things that run the world."

Termites have an incredibly structured social organization that is able to work like a machine towards a common goal. Each colony has a reproducing pair, "king" and "queen", and it is not uncommon for there to be multiple pairs. The worker class of termites undertakes the arduous daily task of foraging and storing food, and building and maintaining the nest. Then there is the soldier class which has evolved anatomical and behavioral modifications. They are much stronger and heavily armored than the relatively fragile worker termites. Their jaws are so large that they are not able to feed themselves, but are an effective tool in defending the colony from attacks from the termite nemesis, the ant.

The social cohesion allows for the colony to act as a single organism and build large mounds and nests. These mounds have been found to greatly enhance the surrounding plant and animal life. The even distribution of mounds over a large area maximizes the ecosystem productivity.

The team led by Palmer and Pringle observed a higher than normal concentration of lizards by the termite mounds and decided to take a closer look at overall wildlife in the vicinity. They found that each mound supports a dense aggregation of flora and fauna which grows more rapidly the closer to the mound it is. Conversely, animal population and reproductively noticeably declined at greater distances from the mound.

One of the primary causes of this phenomenon is believed to be the actual construction and maintenance of the termite mounds. The workers bring up relatively coarse particles to be deposited on the otherwise fine soil. The coarser particles aid in the absorption of rainwater into the soil and discourage movement of topsoil in response to precipitation and drought. The mounds also contain a high level of nitrogen and phosphorous, nutrients that enhance plant growth.

Termites are typically considered pests. They destroy lumber and are the bane of farmers and herders, especially in Africa. However, one has to admire the oversized power of such a small creature. They have evolved over millennia to be a major force on the African Savannah and instrumental to the overall ecosystem. Their lives are very short, but their mounds can last for centuries. Evenly placed throughout the landscape, termites are vital in expanding biomass and biodiversity.

Link to published study in PLoS Biology

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