What is the Role of Termites in Earth's Ecology?
At the mere mention of the word termite, the predominant thought that resurfaces out of our mind is the damage that they cause. Most people think of termites as mere pests that have to be eliminated the moment that they are spotted. However, in a macro point of view, these tiny pests actually take part in the very complex ecology of the planet we all live in. In fact, termites fulfill a very crucial role that their absence (or their total extermination) might as well lead to the destruction of the Earth's ecology.
The role of termites is mostly appreciated in arid and infertile environments; this is the single most significant reason why termites are endemic in Australia, where there is a severe shortage of moisture. Primarily, termites are the main decomposers in dry environments where most bacteria and other decomposing organisms cannot thrive. Because termites also need water for survival, they have developed their own method of extracting water from almost all sorts of materials and at the same time, they have also found a way to design their own colonies to serve as their self-contained environment where they extract cellulose and water for nourishment.
Because termites by themselves cannot metabolize cellulose (that is, the fibers obtained from the different parts of a plant), they have developed a symbiotic relationship to a special type of bacteria that lives in their bodies. These bacteria have not means to look for cellulose too, so they survive by depending on the termites' ability to look for the same material that gives them nourishment. Termites are then able to retain the moisture from the processed cellulose and form soil as a by-product. Overall, the combined capabilities of both creatures have made them the most significant decomposer in dry areas. They can decompose dead plants and thus help the infertile land the nourishment it needs in order to support other plants that depend on it.
Quality Decomposition by Termites
Termites do not just decompose dead plants; they also increase the fertility of the soil where they roam around. Evidently, the mounds wherein termites live are very rich in minerals. Due to soil erosion caused by the natural forces of nature, portions of their mound are eroded and are mixed with the soil the surrounds it. Termites mounds can be thought of as large nutrient banks that store up the nutrients that plants might need in the future for increased vegetation.
While termites still live inside the mound, the little erosions that happen in its mound is sufficient to slowly turn over to its surrounding environment the minerals that come from the dead plants. The moment that the termites abandon a mound, it becomes easier for nature to erode the mound and have the mineral-packed mound soil mix with the soil surrounding it. Thus, even in time when they leave their nest (thus leaving some animals without food too), they still contribute largely to the environment by leaving behind a very mineral-rich soil which the other living plants may benefit from!
Beyond Mere Decomposers
Being a prey to so many animals might be the reason why termites live in colonies that are self-contained. They have also developed the unique ability to build nest made from soil that completely isolates them from their surroundings. Termites also live in hundreds of thousands, even millions in larger colonies. Nonetheless, termites have not escaped their role in the ecology as:
Apart from their extremely commendable capability to decompose dead plants, form soil and retain moisture, termites still have another very significant role -- many animals feed on them. Being in the lowest portion of the food chain, many small birds and frogs, as well as other reptiles like lizards and snakes feed on termites; many insects also feed depend on termites for food.
Moreover, because termites retain moisture both in their bodies and in their nests, many animals also depend on them for water. Many experts agree that the presence of termites is the main reason why there is still an abundance of many different kinds of animals even in the dry places of Australia. The experts are convinced that many animals consider termite nests or mounds as "water oases".
Even in the realms of Kingdom Animalia, there are certain animals that can be considered as squatters. They are those animals that do not build their own nests or homes and prefer to use the nests and homes of other animals as theirs. Termites are known to many animals as "kind" creatures who will allow squatters to live in their mounds.
The most common squatters are the parrots and the other migratory birds. They would dig a sufficiently large hole in the termite mound during the wet seasons. They do this because it is only in the wet season that the mounds are penetrable because the soil is soft, otherwise, the digging can be fatal to the birds because they dig by crashing into the mounds; in the event that they crash while the soil making up the mound is still hard, they would suffer a gruesome and painful death.
Apart from birds, many other animals also squat in termite mounds. These animals include snakes like the python, some rodents like field mice, insects like big beetles and a couple of reptiles like geckos and monitor lizards. These animals prefer the termite mound because of the moist that is present in it, something which is badly needed in very arid places. Moreover, the mound can also serve as an "incubator" for some species of lizards. They simply dig a hole into the mound and lay their eggs there, out of instinct; the termites will try to repair to hole, sealing the eggs into the mound. The process provides the eggs with the right temperature that is needed to hatch.
Therefore, although we can't help hating termites that happen to think of the wood panels of our homes as “dead plants” (because they really are), let us try calm down ourselves with the most inspiring thoughts of how useful termites are in the Earth’s ecology, then maybe we will be able to think of ways to keep the termites away without having to exterminate them all.
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