Termites

Termites (individuals belonging to the Nasutitermitinae family and the Trinervitermes genus), Lamto, Ivory Coast

Termites

Next up in line is Dr. Sébastien Barot from the Institute of Ecology and Environmental Sciences Paris (íFES), Management Committee member.

Why is this organism particularly interesting?

Termites are a very diverse group of insects that are particularly abundant in tropical areas. They are social and live in colonies that build their nests, i.e. termitaria. They are interesting because of the various behaviors they exhibit and their strong impact on ecosystem functioning.

What are the main characteristics of these organisms?

As social insects they live in large groups with collective behaviors such as nest building or food gathering. Individuals belong to different castes with usually workers and soldiers (larger individuals with larger mandibles). Reproduction is usually accomplished by a single queen that can be more than 100 times larger than workers and by some males, the other individuals not being sexually fertile. Termites are wingless except sexually fertile males and females that fly during “spawning” to create new colonies. They build various types of nests: nests in trees, belowground nests, nests with large above ground cosntructions (up to several meters high). They all tend to be detritivore: i.e. to eat dead organic matter in various forms. Some eat the soil and digest a part of the organic matter it contains. Some eat leaf litter or dead wood. Some may attack standing living plant biomass, which may become a problem for agriculture (e.g. sugar canes). Termites use various strategies to digest these materials: Some termite species growth fungus inside their nest (they bring and fragment the organic matter inside their nest, growth fungi on this organic matter because fungi are able to degrade lignin and eat the fungi). Some termite species used protozoa in their guts to help them digest this organic matter.

Why are they important?

In tropical areas (savannas, rain forests) thermites are very influential for the recycling of dead organic matter: plants produce huge amounts of organic matter through photosynthesis and incorporate mineral nutrients (nitrogen, phosphorus …) from the soil within this organic matter. Organisms are needed to recycle this organic matter when leaves, roots and branches die. In temperate countries, fungi recycle branches and trunks and earthworms (together with other groups of soil fauna) fragment the litter and incorporate it into the soil profiles. Termites accelerate the recycling of organic matter in the tropics especially in dry tropics where fungi and earthworms are less abundant and active. Moreover, termites through the construction of their nests use clay that is gathered over large volumes and surfaces of soil, sometimes from deep soil layers. Termites thus influence soil formation and create nutrient rich patches around their nest due to the accumulation of clay and residues of organic matter.

Where and how can I see termites?

Epigeic termite nests, often of large size, are easily observed in all tropical areas. Termites can also be seen when they forage for food on trunks and litter. Termite spawnings are often spectacular because numerous winged individuals fly together, often gathering around light bulbs at night. In temperate countries, a few termite species tend to dwell in dead trees and in wooden houses, causing important damages.