Revealed: Termites mitigate effects of drought in tropical rainforests

January 10, 2019

A major new study, led jointly by the University of Liverpool and the Natural History Museum, has discovered that termites mitigate against the effects of drought in tropical rain forests.

Researchers from both institutions undertook the first large-scale study to test the hypothesis that termites play a crucial role in maintaining ecosystem processes in rainforests during periods of drought.

Termites play an important role in the ecosystem as decomposers and facilitate nutrient cycling, enhance soil moisture and affect nutrients. They are one of the few living creatures that can break down cellulose found in plant material.

Working in tropical rainforest in Malaysian Borneo, during and after the extreme El Nino drought of 2015 - 16, the research team compared sites with lots of termites with sites where termites had been experimentally removed using novel suppression methods.

They found that the sites with termites saw an increase in the abundance of termites during the drought period, with fewer termites in the non-drought period.

The greater number of termites during the drought resulted in higher rates of leaf litter decomposition and nutrient cycling, and increased soil moisture and seedling survival rates compared with the non-drought period.

Liverpool ecologist, Professor Kate Parr from the University of Liverpool's School of Environmental Sciences, said: "Whilst there has been some work exploring how severe drought affects plants in tropical rainforests, our study shows for the first time that having termites helps protect forest from the effects of drought. Termites might only be small but collectively their presence can help reduce the effects of climate change in tropical systems".

Lead author, Dr Hannah Griffiths, also with the University's School of Environmental Sciences said: "The results of our study are important because we show that intact biological communities can act as a kind of ecological insurance by keeping ecosystems functioning in times of environmental stress."

Joint lead author, Louise Ashton from the Natural History Museum and University of Hong Kong, said "Termites confer important ecosystem services, not only in pristine tropical rainforest, but in disturbed or even agricultural ecosystems, if termite abundance is reduced with disturbance, these habitats could be particularly sensitive to drought."

Senior author, Dr Paul Eggleton from the Natural History Museum said "People are just realising how important invertebrates are ecologically, particularly social insects. Termites and ants may well be the 'little things that rule the world."
-end-
The paper `Termites mitigate the effects of drought in tropical rainforest' is published in the journal Science.

University of Liverpool

Related Climate Change Articles from Brightsurf:

Are climate scientists being too cautious when linking extreme weather to climate change?
Climate science has focused on avoiding false alarms when linking extreme events to climate change.

Mysterious climate change
New research findings underline the crucial role that sea ice throughout the Southern Ocean played for atmospheric CO2 in times of rapid climate change in the past.

Mapping the path of climate change
Predicting a major transition, such as climate change, is extremely difficult, but the probabilistic framework developed by the authors is the first step in identifying the path between a shift in two environmental states.

Small change for climate change: Time to increase research funding to save the world
A new study shows that there is a huge disproportion in the level of funding for social science research into the greatest challenge in combating global warming -- how to get individuals and societies to overcome ingrained human habits to make the changes necessary to mitigate climate change.

Sub-national 'climate clubs' could offer key to combating climate change
'Climate clubs' offering membership for sub-national states, in addition to just countries, could speed up progress towards a globally harmonized climate change policy, which in turn offers a way to achieve stronger climate policies in all countries.

Review of Chinese atmospheric science research over the past 70 years: Climate and climate change
Over the past 70 years since the foundation of the People's Republic of China, Chinese scientists have made great contributions to various fields in the research of atmospheric sciences, which attracted worldwide attention.

A CERN for climate change
In a Perspective article appearing in this week's Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Tim Palmer (Oxford University), and Bjorn Stevens (Max Planck Society), critically reflect on the present state of Earth system modelling.

Fairy-wrens change breeding habits to cope with climate change
Warmer temperatures linked to climate change are having a big impact on the breeding habits of one of Australia's most recognisable bird species, according to researchers at The Australian National University (ANU).

Believing in climate change doesn't mean you are preparing for climate change, study finds
Notre Dame researchers found that although coastal homeowners may perceive a worsening of climate change-related hazards, these attitudes are largely unrelated to a homeowner's expectations of actual home damage.

Older forests resist change -- climate change, that is
Older forests in eastern North America are less vulnerable to climate change than younger forests, particularly for carbon storage, timber production, and biodiversity, new research finds.

Read More: Climate Change News and Climate Change Current Events
Brightsurf.com is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.