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Termite as Pollinator? Fossil Specimen Captures the Act

termite in amber with milkweed flower

A forager termite fossilized in amber shows pollen grains attached to its head (shown by arrow) from an adjacent milkweed flower, also encased in the amber specimen.

As far as insect reputations goes, termites are typically known as pests. They get little of the adulation heaped on their pollinator cousins. But a new discovery of a fossilized termite in amber might give reason to see termites in a different light.

As reported in the Spring 2017 issue of American Entomologist, a termite fossilized in amber 15 million to 20 million years ago has been found with pollen grains attached to its head from an adjacent milkweed flower, also fossilized in the same piece of amber. The discovery offers evidence of otherwise rare pollinator activity among termites.

“Not only does it show a rare and previously unknown example of pollination by termites—unknown in both extant and extinct termites—but it also presents the first description of a fossil milkweed flower,” says George Poinar, author of the research paper and an entomologist at Oregon State University.

termite in amber with milkweed pollen

In this closer view, two complete pollen grains (shown by arrows) can be seen attached to the head of a fossilized termite, estimated to be 15 million to 20 million years old.

The specimen in Poinar’s amber collection came from the Dominican Republic, and his examination revealed a milkweed flower of a new genus and species, which he dubbed Discoflorus neotropicus. The adjacent termite shows two full and two partial pollen grains attached to its head.

Termites are not widely known as pollinators, though that role has been seen at least once before in the case of the subterranean orchid (Rhizanthella gardneri), a peculiar and rare underground-blooming flower in western Australia known to be pollinated by Australian harvester termites of the genus Drepanotermes and other subterranean insects.

“Since the fossil termite is not winged, it is assumed that it was visiting the flower of Discoflorus neotropicus when both fell together into the resin,” Poinar writes in his report. “Many extant asclepiads [flowers in the milkweed family] produce nectar along the edge of the stigmatic disk and the fossil termite may have been searching for nectar, which would explain how it acquired the pollinia.”


1 Comment »

  1. this was a beautiful article.
    really enjoyed the images of both the termite and the flower. many thanks!

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