Termites are probably not our favorite insects in the world, but according to new research, their presence is crucial to the prevention of desertification in agricultural lands and semi-arid ecosystems. This is a particularly important ability because we have to deal with climate change, and if termite mounds can help these areas become more resilient during unprecedented temperature fluctuations, the same principles could be applied to other areas of the globe.
Termites are found in multiple ecosystems, from drylands, to savannahs and grasslands, across numerous locations in Africa, South America and Asia. In these environments, termite mounds store moisture and nutrients, and then spread them around via their underground tunnels. This results in more lush vegetation near the mounds in ecosystems that would otherwise be very vulnerable to desertification.
This accumulation of moisture encourages vegetation to spread around the mounds, and allows it to survive with significantly less rain. It’s also important to mention that while this research was performed on tropical termites, the results are theoretically replicated with any termite species that increases the resource availability near their colonies.
Not only that, but entomologists found that termite mounds help preserve plant life and their seeds, which provides safekeeping during drier weather until the rainfall resumes. So termite mounds will ensure that vegetation lives longer and declines slower, and that re-vegetation will occur if the plants die out due to extreme weather.
During a different study at the University of Amsterdam, researchers looked at the various stages in which desertification occurs in grasslands and savannahs. There were five stages in total, but wherever you had termite mounds, the vegetation remained dense while the surrounding areas showed signs of more advanced stages of desertification. This vegetation pattern, in areas where termites are present, is very similar to the pattern seen under the process of desertification when there are no termites at all – the vegetation will concentrate in areas that have high humidity. The only difference is that when you have no termite mounds, the desertification process is near completion, while when the mounds are present, they will help preserve the vegetation for longer.
Using this research, scientists are interested in preserving vegetation using human-made systems in areas that will be hit the hardest by climate change, and this could be a breakthrough that will ameliorate the severity of global warming. Still, in human settlements, the presence of termites is not required to achieve the same ecologically stabilizing effects, so removing termite infestations in rural and urban areas will not damage the environment.