Life Science

Termites May Help Grasslands Deal With Climate Change

Termites engineer their environments in ways that allow the area around their mounds to be buffered from climatic changes. That is the conclusion of a recent study published in the journal Science; providing at least one possible answer to anyone why termites could ever be a good thing.

A field in Zambia is covered in termite mounds popping up out of the grass.
Small termite mounds in Zambia. Photo: LGO’Brien on Flickr (Creative Commons)
Odontotermes species termite on a termite mound fragment held in a human hand.
Odontotermes termite.
Photo by Robert Pringle, Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Princeton University.

The study, which focused on fungus-growing termites of the genus Odontotermes, noted that termite mounds act as valuable stores of moisture and nutrients in the dry grasslands and savannas of Africa, South America, and Asia.  

Furthermore, subterranean termite tunnels provide effective conduits for water to penetrate dry soil. Nearby plants can then use that water when their roots surround the tunnels. The net result is that vegetation in close proximity to termite mounds can flourish in an area that would otherwise be vulnerable to periods of reduced rainfall.

But the buffering capacity of termite mounds with respect to the health of neighboring vegetation may extend beyond just periodic shifts in the amount of rainfall. The researchers argue that the presence of termites and their environmental engineering might buffer environments against larger, more destructive trends like desertification.

Global Desertification Vulnerability Map. USDA (1997)
Global Desertification Vulnerability Map.
USDA (1997)

Desertification is the process by which areas progressively become arid. Over time, these areas lose much of their vegetation along with most of their water bodies. The soil becomes unstable, much of the wildlife is displaced, and the ecosystem in (its prior form) collapses. According to the researchers, this disastrous process could be buffered, in part, by the presence of termite mounds. 

So strong is the effect, that according to co-author Corina Tarnita, “even when you get to such harsh conditions where vegetation disappears from the mounds, re-vegetation is still easier. As long as the mounds are there the ecosystem has a better chance to recover.

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