Climate change in the anthropocene has a profound negative impact on everything from humans to octopi all around the globe. Warming temperatures cause heatwaves and drought, while severe storms ravage our coasts. Our ever-warming planet, however, is experiencing an unexpected benefit to the enemies of wooden houses everywhere: termites.
Termites — which are actually a specialized type of cockroach — live on every continent besides Antarctica and are a vital part of the natural world. Described as “soil engineers” by researcher Pascal Jouquet in the European Journal of Soil Biology, termite activity affects all members of their ecosystem, from the smallest microbes to the largest elephants. Their domain, called the “termitosphere,” comprises a large part of the soil column. The termitosphere intersects with the domain of the humble earthworm, delightfully referred to as the “drilosphere.”
Jouquet detailed how termite activity in the termitosphere affects the amount of water retained in the soil and changes the soil structure, increasing vegetation growth and cover. Termites even affect the biodiversity of animals in their community. Their mounds provide food and shelters for many animals in times of drought and scarcity, protecting organisms from local extinction.
Above all, termites are important decomposers. Feeding on dead plant material including wood and leaf litter, the impact of termites is especially pronounced in arid and dry conditions. The lack of humidity prevents other decomposers such as flies from doing their jobs, but termites have a secret weapon in the form of their mound. A termite mound can essentially be temperature and humidity controlled, allowing termites to efficiently decompose natural materials throughout harsh conditions.
Historically, termite range has been limited by temperature and humidity. According to a new study from Amy Zanne and her international team of researchers, climate change may increase termites' range significantly as average temperatures rise.
Termite wood discovery, where termite colonies locate a new resource, and consumption are heavily dependent on temperature. Zanne’s team found that discovery increased dramatically with temperature, increasing over seven times per 10 degree Celsius increase in temperature. Overall, discovery was greatest, but highly variable, at low latitudes and elevations where temperature and precipitation were high. The same pattern was also observed in reverse, where discovery was west in cool, temperate biomes.
Zanne's team's research estimates termite expansion could increase by 50% from 2041 to 2060 based on current climate predictions. This expansion will affect carbon cycling and wood decomposition in ways we will continue to study in the future.
Termites, however, may become a new threat — or boon — to many tropical ecosystems in the coming years. Termites are here to stay.