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The Nutritional System of Termites

Termites are among the rarest creatures that live on earth which are capable of digesting wood. To most creatures, wood is highly indigestible. For example, wooden cork baits are even used to kill pest mice and other nibbling rodents.

But it is more interesting to know that termites don't digest wood by themselves, rather, a type of protozoa having the size of a micron does all the work. These microorganisms live in a special portion of a termite's intestinal tract which is the only kind of environment is which these creatures can exist. For this reason, a symbiotic relationship exists between the two creatures: the unicellular protozoa and the termite host.

The Wood-digesting Protozoa

More than being the sole agent of breaking down wood material or cellulose into enzymes, the unicellular protozoa inside the termite’s gut is also the main source of protein necessary for termite nutrition. The surplus flagellates inside the termite's gut are digested by the termite giving the termite a steady supply of carbohydrates and protein needed for its survival.

The most interesting fact about the symbiotic relationship of the two creatures is the method by which they come together. The microorganisms that have kept termites alive for millions of years already are not born alongside the termite larvae.

Upon birth, a termite larva is not capable of feeding itself so termite workers have to feed it with the carbohydrates which they have digested themselves (or the microorganisms inside them). The digested cellulose that the workers feed the larva is the means of transferring the microorganisms from the guts of the termite workers to the gut of the larva being fed. Eventually, the microorganisms inside the larva’s gut will grow in number making the grown termite capable of digesting cellulose by itself.

The Self-less Termite Workers

While it can be said that all members of a termite colony are essential for their continued survival, one member of the colony can be considered the most important when it comes to the nutritional system of the termites. These are the termite workers. The termite workers are responsible for finding water and wood, they are also tasked to build and expand the nest. Moreover, termite workers are tasked to feed the Queen, the soldiers and the larvae.

Majority of the members of a termite colony are workers because they are tasked to do a lot of different things inside their colony. A big portion of the entire termite worker population are tasked to dig without ceasing in search for food, while some of the termite workers are tasked to maintain the overall structure of their nest. Moreover, some of the workers are delegated the task of keeping the other members of the colony alive by feeding them with the food that they can digest.

1. The Big, Big Queen

When the queen starts to lay eggs, its abdomen expands to cope with her incessant giving of birth to thousands, if not millions of termite eggs. The queen's abdomen size could reach up to hundreds or thousands of times larger than a regular termite abdomen making her so heavy and immobile. The immobility of the queen makes her a mere laying machine that is incapable of doing anything else except birthing. Thus, it is the workers' responsibility to feed the queen with the same material that they feed the larvae.

2. The Bob-head Soldiers

Termite soldiers are amongst the best-equipped soldiers of nature. Relative to their environment and size, they can be compared to the most trained combat soldiers that we humans have. However, because of their physical nature, termite soldiers are as useless as the queen when it comes to feeding itself. If the queen has an enlarged abdomen, the termite soldiers have enlarged heads. Their heads are made so because of their big and sharp jaws used for defending its nest. Nonetheless, their jaws are as useless in eating as it is as effective in fighting. For this reason, termite workers also have to feed the soldiers.

3. The Weak and Small Larvae

Like what has been discussed above, termite workers also feed the larvae inside a termite colony. No matter what future function the each larva will serve after it has gained enough strength to serve the colony, termite workers are tasked to feed each one of them. Feeding the larvae with pre-digested food is called the "seeding" process because it is the stage when the larvae are "seeded" with the microorganisms that will keep them alive in their adult life.

Termite Mystery

It is still a very big scientific mystery how termites are able to do what they do today despite their lack of thinking capacity. It has long been concluded by science that termites have only discovered how to build their nests and how to keep their colony safe by mere accident, the amazing characteristic of each of the members in a termite colony still brings into the surface questions about their real origin.

A 250-million year old termite fossil preserved in amber has been discovered a couple of years ago. The termites preserved in that piece of rock showed not difference with the physical appearance of the termites that we have today. This is a scientific proof that termites have long discovered the methods that they apply now in building their nests and nourishing the entire colony, giving them no reason to evolve or change their physical appearance to cope with whatever weakness that they are supposed to have.

Termites at Home

Nonetheless, the fascination that is presented here with the kind of existence that termites have does not imply that the termites we have at home should be fancied rather than eradicated. While termites are very interesting to study and to observe in their natural habitats, bear in mind that our homes and properties are not their natural habitats. It is still best if we eradicate termites which destroy the structures of our homes and probably compromise our lives. And the best way to do so is to continually keep in mind that termites can exist on their own (even without the steady food source they get from your wooden floorboards!).

Michael Rozatoru :)
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