During Drought Termites Protect Tropical Rainforests

Termites become more active and abundant during times of Drought, protecting Tropical Ecosystems.

According to a latest research and study, termites that toils beneath leaf litter and inside the rotting husks of long fallen trees play a much larger role in the tropical rainforest ecosystems than previously thought.

During the periods of drought, termites’ abundance and activity nearly double, which has the overall effect of helping to maintain crucial ecosystem processes such as organic decomposition, soil moisture regulation and nutrient mixing.

These activities greatly bolster seedling survival, researchers report in the January 11 issue of Science.

The study also demonstrates the need to conserve and protect intact biological communities, both large and small.

As per the study, the integral role that termites have in maintaining a functional ecosystem — particularly one under environmental duress — illustrates how a single community of tiny invertebrates can help safeguard an entire forest during times of rapid environmental change.

“This is particularly important given that drought is projected to increase as a result of climate change — termites are going to become increasingly more important,” said Griffiths.

How Termites Protect Tropical Rainforests During Drought?

Termites are common in tropical environments worldwide and known to be among the most effective ecosystem engineers. By tunnelling below and consuming the dead and decaying leaves and wood scattered across the rainforest floor, termite communities mix, maintain and regulate soil properties like nutrients and moisture — each of which is a key factor in maintaining rainforest ecosystems.

Extended periods of droughts can change or disrupt these important ecosystem functions, which can greatly impact tree mortality and the health of the rainforest.

Despite their abundance and recognized importance, the overall ecological contributions of forest termites have remained largely unquantified in real-world environments, according to the study authors. They say little is known about how drought-mediated changes to termite communities affect rainforest ecosystems during periods of environmental stress.

“Up to now it hasn’t been possible to separate out the effects of termites from other taxa,” such as fungi and microbes, said Louise Ashton, a researcher at the University of Hong Kong and lead author of the study.

According to the authors, it isn’t certain why termites become more abundant during times of drought. The drier conditions make it easier for the insects to tunnel underground, which would normally be difficult in waterlogged soil, or that the absence of precipitation or reduced predation from ants allows for safer and more fruitful above-ground foraging activities.

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Droughts may also represent competitor-free periods during which termites enjoy reduced competition for food. Various types of fungi feed on dead and decaying plant matter and use toxins to kill, scare or make food unpalatable for would-be competitors like termites. However, unlike termites, fungi cannot transport nor store their own water. Because of this, the survival of one of the insect’s main food competitors depends on regular rainfall.

Originally published here.

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