Termites help to protect tropical forests during drought, study finds

Termites help to protect tropical forests during drought, study finds

Droughts can transform tropical forests. They kill trees and slow their growth. They also affect microbes that are critical to keeping the forest soil healthy. But termites, better known for their intricate mound-building skills and for chewing through wooden furniture, help tropical forests withstand drought, a new study has found. Tiny termites are known to play big roles in tropical forests: they dig tunnels through the forest floor, and eat wood and leaf litter, moving moisture and mixing nutrients through the soil. Despite these roles, termites are an understudied group in ecology, says Louise Amy Ashton, assistant professor at the University of Hong Kong and lead author of the study published in Science. Termites’ impacts on forests, especially during drought, which is increasing in severity and frequency across the tropics, has not been experimentally studied before. Ashton and colleagues had the opportunity to do just that during the El Niño drought of 2015-2016. The team set up experimental plots within an old-growth tropical rainforest in the Maliau Basin Conservation Area in Sabah, Malaysia. In four of those plots, the researchers suppressed termite activity by both physically removing all termite mounds, and by applying insecticides and using poisoned toilet-paper rolls as bait to get rid of most wood- and leaf-litter-eating termites. “The insecticide is active against all insects and other arthropods,” co-author Theodore Evans, an associate professor at the University of Western Australia, told Mongabay in an email. “However, the concentration used was so low, a lot of bait has to be eaten to reach a…

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