Although famous for building enormous mounds and eating their way through houses, termites have long baffled scientists as to their place in the natural world and their relationship with other insects. Now, insect experts at the Natural History Museum reveal that termites are in fact cockroaches.
Whilst it has always been known that termites are part of a wider 'superorder' that includes cockroaches, termites were previously classified separately, with an appearance and social behaviour very different from their kitchen infesting counterparts. Confusingly also known as 'white ants', termites in fact show many behavioural similarities to ants, wasps and bees, as they are 'social' insects that produce sterile offspring to carry out specialised tasks such as foraging, mound building, defence and reproduction.
Now, as a result of the most comprehensive DNA study to date, scientists at the Natural History Museum have discovered that termites are actually cockroaches, meaning that not only are cockroaches the pests eating the food in your kitchen, they are also the insects eating your house!
Dr Paul Eggleton, termite researcher at the Natural History Museum, comments, 'The key change in the termites' evolution from their cockroach ancestors seems to have occurred when they developed the ability to eat wood - they gradually lost their characteristic egg case, and some of their offspring became sterile workers and soldiers. It may seem surprising that termites are actually social cockroaches since they look so different, but it is not unusual for animals to change in appearance as their behaviour evolves over time: perhaps the most famous social insects, ants, evolved from solitary predatory wasps."
Dr George Beccaloni, the Natural History Museum's cockroach expert added, "It is very rare that such a major change is proposed in how a group of animals is classified. If our findings are correct the textbooks will need to be rewritten."
Notes for editors
Daegan Inward, George Beccaloni and Paul Eggleton from the Entomology department of the Natural History Museum are the authors of the paper entitled Death of an order: a comprehensive molecular phylogenetic study confirms that termites are eusocial cockroaches published online in the Royal Society journal Biology Letters
Winner of the 2006 Independent award for the UK's favourite museum, gallery or heritage attraction at the Museum and Heritage Awards for Excellence, the Natural History Museum is also a world-leading science research centre. Through its collections and scientific expertise, the Museum is helping to conserve the extraordinary richness and diversity of the natural world with groundbreaking projects in 68 countries.
For more information or images, please contact:
Tel: 020 7942 5654 or email us.