Termites are highly abundant in tropical ecosystems. They are one of the few living creatures that can break down cellulose found in plant material. They create temporary above-ground protective structures called “sheeting” which allows them to move about in the forest even during drought conditions. They are thought to be important for soil processes including decomposing and soil moisture, however the roles of termites in these processes in tropical rainforest have not been fully quantified using real-world experiments. This is because it is quite difficult to suppress the activity of termites. The research team developed novel suppression techniques using toilet paper rolls and regular monitoring of termite communities to understand what termites are doing in tropical rainforests.
This large-scale experiment was established at the beginning of the 2015 El Nino drought and the team carried out the same experiments in 2016 during non-drought conditions. This allowed them to not only investigate the roles of termites in tropical rainforests, but also how drought influences termite activity and the knock-on effects in the ecosystem. …
They found that the sites with termites saw an increase in the abundance of termites during the drought period, with fewer termites in the non-drought period. The greater number of termites during the drought resulted in higher rates of leaf litter decomposition and nutrient heterogeneity, and increased soil moisture and seedling survival rates compared with the non-drought period.
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.” Paper. (paywall) – L. A. Ashton et al. Termites mitigate the effects of drought in tropical rainforest. Science, 2019 DOI: 10.1126/science.aau9565 More.
You’d almost think the system was designed to be stable over a range of climate conditions while slowly changing over time. Termites would be a good tool because they behave as a giant crawling communal brain.
Note: The researchers observe that only 4% of some 3000 termite species are pests.
See also: Biomimetics: Termites Had Complex Gut Reactors 30 Million Years Ago
J/;. Scott Turner and the Giant Crawling Brain
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