Study finds termites could play central role in climate change

Global Wood Block Decay Experiment set in a semi-arid rainforest in Alice Springs, Northern Territory, Australia. This site is part of the Terrestrial Ecosystems Research Network.

A new international study including researchers from the University of Western Sydney has found that termites play a vital role in global ecosystems, particularly in the tropics, and are expected to become increasingly important as temperatures rise in the world.

Published in Science, the study indicates that the activity of termites is 3.5 times more sensitive to temperature increases than that of microbes (bacteria and fungi). So, as temperatures warm around the world, the important role termites play in wood decay will likely extend beyond the tropics.

The results suggest that regions with high termite activity should increase as the land becomes warmer and drier. As a result, they could soon move closer to the North and South Poles as global temperatures warm due to climate change.

Co-author Professor Jeff Powell of the University’s Hawkesbury Institute for the Environment said the study offers insight into how termites contribute to the functioning of natural ecosystems, despite being known as pests.

“The results showed us that the impact of termites is often underestimated, especially in the dry tropics where microbial decomposition of wood is slow. We can expect to see substantial increases in termite activity by mid-century,” Prof Powell said.

While microbes need water to grow and consume wood, termites can function at relatively low humidity levels. They can search for their next meal, bring what they need back to their mounds, or move their colony into the wood they consume, even if conditions are dry.

Termites release carbon from wood in the form of methane and carbon dioxide, which are two of the most important greenhouse gases. Therefore, termites may increasingly contribute to greenhouse gas emissions with climate change.

Led by researchers at the University of Miami, the study measured termites and microbial decomposition of wood at more than 130 sites around the world, including the eucalyptus forest where the EucFACE experiment is located. University of Western Sydney. The site is part of Australia’s Terrestrial Ecosystem Research Network (TERN).

“This is an excellent example of what a relatively simple experiment can accomplish when the research community joins in in a coordinated fashion. Without this, it would not have been possible to uncover the massive extent of the impact of climate on termite activity.

The study titled “Temperature Sensitivity of Termites Affects Global Rates of Wood Decay” is available for download here.

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Teresa H. Sadler