Are Termites a Disturbance for the Ecosystem?

In the tropics, everyone knows termites as pests that damage wood and plants, but very few people know that they also help in keeping the soil healthy.
Everyone knows termites as pests that damage wood and plants [Pixabay]
Everyone knows termites as pests that damage wood and plants [Pixabay]

Termites are known to be a common pest that most people know at least in general. Everybody in the tropics knows that termites are destructive pests that destroys wood and plant matter, but only a select few know that they also play a part in enhancing the health of soil.

As their primary food source, structural timbers do more economic damage in the United States than fire and flood put together. Termites have a wide variety of morphological shapes and are completely social insects. They are in particular, a specialized cockroach with intricate social structures. This article will help you decide whether termites are a nuisance to your ecosystem or not

Everyone knows termites as pests that damage wood and plants [Pixabay]
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Termites may have a bigger responsibility than we thought

Common perception has it that termites are destructive pests that eat wood structures. However, only about 4% of all termite species are of this type. Termites, together with ants and earthworms, are a crucial part of the soil food web.

They have a significant role in ecological processes in many regions and are often the prevailing microbiota, notably in the tropics. Decomposition and recycling of organic waste, dung elimination, soil aeration, soil formation, soil fertility, and pollination are amongst the most important ecosystem services.

Most termites are soil feeding termites, ones that live entirely in the soil. In the Tropical countries, especially tropical rainforests, they have a very high biomass, and they do a lot of the soil bioturbation and movement, so they increase aeration hydrology. They are very good at increasing the amount of heterogeneity in the soil, which is really important for biodiversity.

Dr. Paul Eggleton, Merit Researcher, the Natural History Museum, London, Life Sciences, United Kingdom

Zanne and more than a hundred co-authors investigated global hotspots for microbial decomposition of wood, including bacterial, fungal, and termite activity, for a study published in the journal Science. 
(Source: Pixabay)
Zanne and more than a hundred co-authors investigated global hotspots for microbial decomposition of wood, including bacterial, fungal, and termite activity, for a study published in the journal Science. (Source: Pixabay)

Termites and climate change

Scientists from all around the world, led by a biology professor, Amy Zanne, at the University of Miami, Florida, have recently discovered how important termites are to the carbon cycle of our planet. According to Zanne, termites could become a bigger source of greenhouse gas emissions as the climate changes.

Zanne and more than a hundred co-authors investigated global hotspots for microbial decomposition of wood, including bacterial, fungal, and termite activity, for a study published in the journal Science.

Using the same experimental setup across 130 sites across six continents, they studied how temperature and rainfall affects wood discovery and decay. In light of their findings, it stands to reason that as the planet will warm up and dry out, the number of places where termites thrive will rise.

They probably overall don't have much effect, although recent studies suggest that they may be important in the future as it gets warmer, they may feed on more deadwood. In the past, people have wondered whether they produce a lot of methane. But it seems like they don't, they're not an important source of global methane (CH4).

Dr. Paul Eggleton, Merit Researcher, the Natural History Museum, London, Life Sciences, United Kingdom

Termites emit anywhere from 1.0 to 8.0 milligrams of methane per kilogram every hour depending on the environment they're in. (Source: Flickr)
Termites emit anywhere from 1.0 to 8.0 milligrams of methane per kilogram every hour depending on the environment they're in. (Source: Flickr)Picasa

Greenhouse gases released by termites

Although they have advantages, the same can also be a disadvantage. More recent research has revealed that termites produce different amounts of CH4, N2O, and CO2 depending on their species, soil conditions, and the quality of their food source. Termites emit anywhere from 1.0 to 8.0 milligrams of methane per kilogram every hour, depending on the environment they are in. Three to four percent of the world's methane budget comes from termites. Up to 10% of the tropical forest in southern Vietnam's CO2 emissions comes from termite mounds.

It is speculated that if they feed on more dead wood, and less dead wood will lie on the ground, sequestering of carbon will occur, so more carbon dioxide will end up in the atmosphere. And this will increase the rate of global warming. So, more termites could mean more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. And that could mean more Global Warming.

Dr. Paul Eggleton, Merit Researcher, the Natural History Museum, London, Life Sciences, United Kingdom

Remarks

Termites are critically important to ecosystems and economies. Large, good effects on ecosystems are evident, but they also have a major adverse impact on several human activities. The work of termites as ecosystem engineers in soil is responsible for the greatest environmental repercussions.

Termites' destructive habits as building and farm pests have the greatest harmful effects. Due to a recent upward trend in the distribution of destructive termite species, more money has been lost in recent decades.

The other thing to remember is that most termites are not pests. And most termites are not wood feeding termites. When it's very hot and dry, termites can do a lot better than microbes can. So, in a hotter and drier world that we may be approaching, they're likely to do much better than the microbes, they're likely to hit their overall activity and diversity levels, particularly in the hot tropics.

Dr. Paul Eggleton, Merit Researcher, the Natural History Museum, London, Life Sciences, United Kingdom

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