Termites Help Forests Weather Drought

Although widely regarded as pests, termites provide rainforests with important ecosystem services, study finds.

AsianScientist (Jan. 21, 2019) – In a study published in Science, researchers in Hong Kong have found that termites help mitigate the effects of drought in tropical forests.

Termites are highly abundant in tropical ecosystems. They create temporary above-ground protective structures called ‘sheeting’ which allows them to move about in the forest even during drought conditions, and are one of the few living creatures that can break down cellulose found in plant material.

While termites are thought to be important for soil processes such as decomposing biological matter and modifying soil moisture, their precise roles in tropical rainforest have not been fully quantified in real-world settings.

In the present study, scientists led by Dr. Louise Ashton from the University of Hong Kong and the Natural History Museum, UK, studied termite behavior in a tropical rainforest in Malaysian Borneo from the beginning of the 2015 El Niño drought season to the 2016 non-drought season. This allowed the researchers to not only investigate the roles of termites in tropical rainforests, but also explore how drought influences termite activity, as well as the knock-on effects in the ecosystem.

They found that the abundance of termites increased during the drought period, resulting in higher rates of leaf litter decomposition and nutrient heterogeneity, increased soil moisture and elevated seedling survival rates compared with the non-drought period. Termites are therefore essential in buffering the negative effects of drought in tropical rainforests, said the researchers.

“Termites confer important ecosystem services, not only in pristine tropical rainforests, but also in disturbed or even agricultural ecosystems. If termite abundance is reduced with disturbance, these habitats could be particularly sensitive to drought,” said Ashton.

The article can be found at: Ashton et al. (2019) Termites Mitigate the Effects of Drought in Tropical Rainforest.


Source: University of Hong Kong; Photo: Pixabay.
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