Termites save the rainforest in times of drought
As social insects, it is widely acknowledged that termites have an important role to play in a tropical ecosystems. However, a new study published in the journal Science is one of the first to identify just how important that role is, especially during times of drought.
Termites are highly abundant in tropical ecosystems. As moisture-loving creatures, the mud ‘sheeting’ and mud tubes they create from above-ground structures that allow them to move about in the forest even during the dry conditions. As one of the few creatures that can break down cellulose, they have an important role in soil process including decomposing and increasing moisture. The role of termites in these processes in tropical rainforests has not been fully quantified using real-world experiments until now.
The large-scale study was collaboration between The University of Western Australia, the universities of Hong Kong and Malaysia, and British researchers looked at the impact of termites both during the
El Nino drought and afterwards, in the rainforests of Malaysian Borneo. Professor of Western Australian
University said “The sheer quantity of termites suggests these insects have important roles to play in rainforest ecosystems, however what that role is has never been understood up until now. That is partly due to their small size, and because they live underground, it makes them harder to study”.
In 2014, the research team set out to compare areas of high termite activity with areas of low termite activity, with the aim of understanding the impacts termites have on the rainforest. However, a year into the study, the rainforest was hit by a severe drought cause by a strong El Nino event in 2015-16. At first, the researches worried their experiment on rainforest insect activity would be compromised. But the halt in rain turned out to be a rare opportunity to study how termites affect a forest during drought.