The Tiny Termite and Its Huge Role in the African Savannah

May 4th, 2013 BY Saikat | No Comments

In a layman’s eyes, a termite is not among nature’s heroes. The creature is so small that it slips under the radar and you won’t find it in Nature’s Hall of Infamy. But if its role in building up the African Savannah is an indication, it’s time to induct it among the heroes. Let’s call it an ecosystem builder. But why and how?

In a gist, the lowly termite is capable of building up the ecosystem by construction quite large natural structures. The study behind the impact of termites on natural ecosystems was recently brought out in the journal PLoS Biology. Todd Palmer, one of the paper’s authors and an assistant professor of biology at the University of Florida says

“One of the kinds of typical things I think that people think about is, what drives a savanna in terms of its structure and function? We think about big animals, but these termites are having a massive impact on the system from below.”

In the natural world, size (i.e. even small size) does matter. Termites very similar to bees and ants also have a hierarchal and structured social organization. Just like an assembly line, each termite works towards a common goal. At the head are the reproducing pairs – the king and the queen. The worker class searches for, and stores food. They also are the maintenance army for the colony and the nest. The soldiers are the larger termites who have evolved functionally and morphologically to form the defensive line against their enemies, the ants.

Termite colonies work as units. This has an effect on the surrounding ecosystem. The study found that the ecosystem was richer in terms of animal and plant life in the vicinity of the termite mounds. Reproduction rates were also higher. Animal population and their growth perceptibly slumped at greater distances from the mound.

The reason cited is that termite mounds are made up of coarser particles. The coarser particles help in the absorption of rainwater into the soil and discourage movement of topsoil. Water retention improves thus facilitating life. The other factor that helps in support of life is the increased levels of nitrogen and phosphorous, nutrients that increase plant growth.

The study says that termites may be pests in the rest of the world, but in the African Savannah, they are a force to reckon with.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

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