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Termites: ancient, diverse and successful

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Termites are abundant and successful species. They are closely related to cockroaches. They are ancient (originating as early as in the Jurassic period >145 million years ago), diverse (over 3000 species), widespread (all continents except antarctic) and endemic to Australia. Dr Thomas Bourguignon, from Sydney University’s School of Biological Sciences, discusses some of the reasons why termites became successful.
They account for some 20% of the animal biomass in rainforest areas so their numbers are huge compared to other animals. They are prey for ants, anteaters and other opportunistic predators. Because they make up 20% of the animal biomass, different colonies compete with each other for resources.
They feed on wood, and depending on the species, this can be live trees, rotting wood or dry pieces of dead wood. They can also feed on organic particles in the soil, so any plant material can be their food, which is one factor that contributes to their success.
Another factor is the specialisation of different termites in a colony even though genetically they are identical brothers and sisters. However most individual termites in a colony do not reproduce and have specialised roles. Some take care of the larvae, some gather food and others are soldiers or workers. Depending on the species, there is usually one king and one queen who are the only termites reproducing. When they die many males and females begin to reproduce, setting up conflict within the colony before the one king/one queen balance is restored by the surviving successful competitor pair.
King and queen termites can live for tens of years but the workers and soldiers have a very short life (a maximum of one year) although in small, more primitive species, these termites can live longer. Every termite in a colony has the same mother and father and there is no genetic disposition to becoming a worker or a soldier. The specialisation is the result of various manipulations by the king and queen. For example it has been shown that in one species, the king and queen produce pheromones that prevent other termites from reproducing. When termite colonies are small the king and queen also manipulate the larvae by controlling the amounts of food they receive. Earliest hatched larvae are fed more and develop as soldiers while later hatched receive less and become workers. In species that form large colonies, as the size of the colony increases, other termites take on these manipulative activities and the roles of the king and queen become entirely egg production.
Given her long life span and rate of egg production (one per second), the queen can produce prodigious numbers of eggs. In primitive species of termites however, every termite can reproduce. Their small colonies can have tens of termites to hundreds of termites compared with the more advanced species whose colonies can comprise millions.
Each small world finds its own niche.

Dr Thomas Bourguignon was interviewed for A Question of Balance by Ruby Vincent. Summary text by Victor Barry, September 2015 

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