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Termites help maintain tropical ecosystems during periods of drought

The termite is a small but mighty insect that plays a crucial role in decomposing organic matter because they can break down cellulose in plants. Their role as nutrient cyclers helps keep ecosystems healthy, increasing nutrient levels in the soil and driving plant growth.

Termites also help increase moisture leaves in the soil and as such can help maintain important tropical ecosystem processes during times of drought, according to a new study conducted by researchers from the University of Liverpool and the Natural History Museum.

The research, published in the journal Science, represents the first large-scale study of its kind to examine the role of termites in decreasing the impacts of drought in a tropical ecosystem.

“Whilst 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 forest from the effects of drought,” said Kate Parr, a member of the research team. “Termites might only be small but collectively their presence can help reduce the effects of climate change in tropical systems.”

The researchers compared termite abundance and soil moisture between different sites in a tropical rainforest in Malaysian Borneo.

Some of the sites had no termites because of novel suppression methods, and the researchers found that in the areas with termites there were more termites during the drought period, more leaf litter, and higher levels of soil moisture.

There were also higher rates of seedling survival near the sites with termites during the drought.

“The results of our study are important because we show that intact biological communities can act as a kind of ecological insurance by keeping ecosystems functioning in times of environmental stress,” said Hannah Griffiths, a lead author of the study.

The study shows how crucial termites are to an ecosystem and not just in tropical regions.

“Termites confer important ecosystem services, not only in pristine tropical rainforest, but in disturbed or even agricultural ecosystems, if termite abundance is reduced with disturbance, these habitats could be particularly sensitive to drought,” said Louise Ashton, the joint lead author of the study.

By Kay Vandette, Staff Writer

Image Credit: University of Liverpool / Natural History Museum

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