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Termites may play pivotal role in climate change: Study

Termites may play pivotal role in climate change: Study

A colony of hungry termites walks through the leaf litter in any jungle, especially in the tropics. Looking for food, they suddenly come across a tree that has fallen because it has completed its life cycle.

A new international study including researchers has revealed that termites play a critical role in the world’s ecosystems, particularly in the tropics, and are expected to become increasingly important as temperatures rise.

The study, published in Science, indicates that the activity of termites is 3.5 times more sensitive to increases in temperature than that of microbes (bacteria and fungi), so as temperatures rise around the world, the important role termites play in wood decomposition is likely to extend beyond the tropics.

The results suggest that regions with high termite activity should increase as the land becomes warmer and drier. As a result, they could soon be approaching the North and South Poles as global temperatures warm due to climate change.

The research, published in the journal Science, involved more than 100 researchers studying places around the world where bacteria, fungi (microbes) and termites consume dead wood. They also investigated how temperature and rainfall might affect wood discovery and decay by using the same experimental setup at more than 130 sites in a variety of habitats on six continents. Their results suggest that areas with high termite activity should increase as the land gets warmer and drier.

Professor Amy Zanne of the University of Miami led the study. She said: “With temperatures warming, the impact of termites on the planet could be huge. Termites had their greatest effects in places like tropical savannahs, tropical seasonal forests, and subtropical deserts. These systems are often underestimated in terms of their contributions to the global carbon budget.”

Amy Austin, associate professor of ecology at the University of Buenos Aires, said: “The inclusion of hot, arid bioregions, particularly in the southern hemisphere, where termites are often abundant and active, allowed new insight into their role in renewing of carbon”.

Kate Parr, Professor of Tropical Ecology in the University of Liverpool’s School of Environmental Sciences, said: “We need to pay more attention to drier habitats, such as savannahs and grasslands, where there is clearly the potential for big change in climate global carbon cycle with increasing decomposition by termites.”

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“Our study also demonstrates that the old idea that microbes dominate decomposition globally needs rethinking, as termites clearly thrive in much of the world.”

The global project involved a diverse team of researchers around the world, including several African students supervised by Professor Parr, who provided key data on Africa.

She added: “Our African PhD students really benefited from participating in this global project and in turn provided data from hot and dry sites that were critical to the study’s conclusions.”

Although microbes and termites break down dead wood, there are important differences between them. While microbes need water to grow and consume wood, termites can function in relatively low humidity levels. In fact, termites can seek out their next meal even if it’s dry and carry what they want back to their mounds, or even move their colony onto the wood they’re consuming.

“Microbes are globally important when it comes to wood decomposition, but we have largely overlooked the role of termites in this process. This means that we do not take into account the massive effect that these insects could have for the future carbon cycle and interactions with climate change”, added Zanne.

Like small cows, termites release carbon from wood in the form of methane and carbon dioxide, which are two of the most important greenhouse gases. Therefore, Zanne said termites may contribute more and more to greenhouse gas emissions with climate change.

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