A new study, co-led by a researcher at Griffith University, found that termites are capable of decreasing the effects of drought on rainforests.
Dr. Louise Ashton is an associate fellow at the Griffith Institute for Environmental Futures Research, who is also affiliated with the University of Hong Kong and the London Natural History Museum.
Dr. Ashton worked with the Natural History Museum and the University of Liverpool in the first large-scale study to determine the role that termites play in the rainforests in maintaining ecosystem processes in times of drought.
Termites act as "decomposers" in ecosystems and facilitate the nutrient cycle and increase soil moisture. They are one of the few living organisms capable of breaking down cellulose into plant material.
The research team conducted the study in Malaysian Borneo during and after the El Nino drought of 2015-16, where they compared sites with termites to those in which termites were removed experimentally using suppression methods.
They found that sites where termites had not been suppressed experimentally had an increase in termites during drought, and fewer termites during the non-dry period.
The higher number of termites during the drought generated a higher rate of litter decomposition and nutrient heterogeneity, as well as higher soil moisture and seedling survival compared to the non-dry period.
Professor Kate Parr of the University of Liverpool School of Environmental Sciences said: "While there has been some work exploring how severe drought affects plants in tropical forests, our study shows for the first time that having termites helps protect the forest from the effects of the drought. Termites may only be small, but collectively their presence can help reduce the effects of climate change on tropical systems. "
"The findings of our study are important because they show that intact biological communities can act as a type of ecological insurance, keeping ecosystems functioning," said lead author Dr. Hannah Griffiths of the School of Environmental Sciences at the University of Liverpool. in times of environmental stress. "
"Termites confer important ecosystem services, not only in untouched tropical forests, but perhaps also in disturbed or even agricultural ecosystems," Ashton said.
"If termite abundance is reduced with disturbance, these habitats may be particularly sensitive to drought."
Senior author Paul Eggleton of the Natural History Museum said: "People are only realizing how invertebrates are ecologically important, especially social insects. Termites and ants may well be the "little things that rule the world."
The document "Termites to mitigate the effects of drought in the rainforest" is published in Science (doi / 10.1126 / science.aau9565).
The study was conducted in collaboration with the Natural History Museum.