New research published in the journal Science suggests that termite nests are crucial to stopping the spread of deserts. In the parched grasslands and savannas of Africa, South America, and Asia, termite mounds store nutrients and moisture, and — via internal tunnels — allow water to better penetrate the soil. As a result, vegetation flourishes on and near termite mounds in ecosystems that are otherwise highly vulnerable to desertification.
“The vegetation on and around termite mounds persists longer and declines slower,” said corresponding author Corina Tarnita. “Because termites allow water to penetrate the soil better, the plants grow on or near the mounds as if there were more rain. Even when you get to such harsh conditions where vegetation disappears from the mounds, re-vegetation is still easier. As long as the mounds are there, the ecosystem has a better chance to recover.”
Dr. Tarnita and her co-authors report that drylands with termite mounds can survive on significantly less rain than those without termite mounds. The research was inspired by fungus-growing termites of the genus Odontotermes, but the theoretical results apply to other types of termites that increase resource availability near their nests.
The study suggests that climate models need to better account for organisms such as termites that “engineer their own environment.”
“This is an eye-opening study that says we really need to investigate these ecosystems in more detail and incorporate all these other mechanisms before we can say what will lead to a catastrophic collapse in ecosystem function,” said Dr. Jef Huisman, an aquatic microbiology professor and theoretical ecologist at the University of Amsterdam who was not involved with the study. “We should always be humble in our model predictions because nature can always be more complex than we initially anticipate.”
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