They are considered as household pests that chew the house down but many are unaware of their important role in the rainforests of Borneo.
In Sabah Malaysia, tropical rainforests survive the drought brought about by the unpredictable climate change with the help of termites. According to the research conducted by Louise Amy Ashton and her team, these insects are an understudied class in ecology.
Termites bore channels through the forest floor while consuming wood and fallen leaves. At the same time, it distributes moisture and incorporates nutrients into the soil. The insects’ significance on the tropical rainforests, chiefly during dry spell was not analytically researched before. Ashton along with her team had the opportunity to study the termites through the 2015 to 2016 El Niño phenomenon. She is also University of Hong Kong assistant professor and lead author of the research published in the journal Science.
They arranged a number of experimental plots inside old-growth tropical rainforest in the Maliau Basin Conservation Area situated in Sabah, Malaysia. Researchers stifled termite bustle in four plots by substantially eradicating termite mounds. The team also applied insecticides and used more than 4,000 toilet paper rolls laden with poison to exterminate most of the termites from 2,500-metre-square plots.
An associate professor at the University of Western Australia and co-author Theodore Evans said in an email, “The insecticide is active against all insects and other arthropods. However, the concentration used was so low, a lot of bait has to be eaten to reach a lethal dose, and so will work better against social species [like termites]. Also, toilet paper is almost pure cellulose, so will be eaten only by animals that target cellulose, and undecomposed at that.”
The researchers observed the termite activity in the stifled plots and weighed against the four contained plots. These are similar plots where the insects’ bustle was not intruded, that is, during and after drought. They discovered that termite activity was noticeably lower in stifle plots compared to the controlled ones.
They also found out that the population of termites in the controlled plots appears to be more than twice during drought compared to after-drought or when the normal downpour started again. Also, during dry spell situations, the increase in termite activity resulted in accelerated decomposition of leaf wastes, boosted soil moisture, and larger variegation in soil nutrient dissemination in the controlled plots compared to the suppressed plots. These distinctions were less bleak in after drought conditions.
The group believes that the accumulation in termite activities is made possible by drought because the tunnels are more dried up and less moist. This underground condition makes it easier for termites to move around the tunnels and go on with their daily routine and reducing the struggle with fungi.
According to Evans, fungi require food (leaf litter) and water in the exact location to live and grow and thrive well in moist surroundings. During dry days, food and water are divided, where food is fetched on the soil surface, and with the water procured underground.
The outcome of the activity not only pertains to the buildup of leaf litter and wood decomposition. It also indicates a surge in the entire level of moisture in the soil and the rate of nutrient circulation within the habitat.
The study, therefore, concludes that virgin rainforests have legions of termites that share to ecosystem’s health and resistance to drought. This only suggests that these household pests eventually have a significant role in the preservation of plant diversification in the coming decade, assuming that the starkness and prevalence of dry spells are anticipated to grow with climate change.