Image: The Natural History Museum and the University of Liverpool

Termites mitigate effects of drought in tropical rainforests

Researchers found that both termite numbers and activity increased during the El Niño drought of 2015-2016, resulting in higher leaf litter decomposition and soil moisture

Researchers from both institutions undertook the first large-scale study to test the hypothesis that termites play a crucial role in maintaining ecosystem processes in rainforests during periods of drought.

Dr Paul Eggleton, merit researcher at the Natural History Museum and author on this study says, ‘People are just realising how important invertebrates are ecologically.’ Termites play an important role in the ecosystem as decomposers – they facilitate nutrient cycling, enhance soil moisture and affect nutrients. They are one of the few animals that can break down cellulose found in plant material.

Working in tropical rainforests in Malaysian Borneo, during and after the extreme El Nino drought of 2015–16, the research team compared sites with lots of termites to sites where termites had been experimentally removed using novel suppression methods.

‘Termites can occur in really high densities, up to 10,000 individuals in a square mile in some tropical rainforests,’ explains Museum Post-Doctoral Fellow and joint lead author Louise Ashton. ‘We suppressed the activity of termites by using treated toilet paper rolls (which some termites find very tasty), using over 4000 toilet paper rolls!’

Credit: The Natural History Museum and the University of Liverpool

Credit: The Natural History Museum and the University of Liverpool

 

The team found that the sites with termites saw an increase in the abundance of termites during the drought period, with fewer termites in the non-drought period. They also discovered that the greater number of termites during the drought resulted in higher rates of leaf litter decomposition, nutrient cycling, increased soil moisture and seedling survival rates compared with the non-drought period, suggesting that termites are contributing a large, previously overlooked, component of decomposition to the carbon cycle.

Louise explains, ‘Termites may confer important ecosystem services, not only in pristine tropical rainforest, but in disturbed or even agricultural ecosystems. Alternatively, if termite diversity declines with disturbance, these habitats could be more sensitive to drought. We would like to do further work on the roles of termites in these systems to find out.

Liverpool ecologist, and joint Principal Investigator,Professor Kate Parr from the University’s School of Environmental Sciences, said: ‘While there has been some work exploring how severe drought affects plants in tropical rainforests, our study shows for the first time that having termites helps protect rainforests from the effects of drought. Termites might only be small but collectively their presence can help reduce the effects of climate change in tropical systems’.

‘Termites are really serious pests in a lot of the world. This shows that they not only eat houses, but can also be a positive force in ecosystems,’ says Paul. ‘Termites may well be the "little things that rule the world!”’

  • Read the full paper published in Science here. 

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