In DepthEcology

Africa's soil engineers: Termites

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Science  06 Feb 2015:
Vol. 347, Issue 6222, pp. 596-597
DOI: 10.1126/science.347.6222.596

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Summary

Although we all tend to think about large mammals as being the big dominant drivers of what's happening in the savanna, termites and their mounds are proving ever more influential. Indigenous people have long used soil from termite mounds for farming. Studies have long shown termites, by retrieving vegetation, help concentrate nitrogen, phosphorous, and organic material in the mounds. These nutrient islands are the savanna's supermarkets, supporting both plant-eating and predatory insects, as well as spiders, lizards, and large grazers, such as elephants. They occur in polka-dot arrays, spaced to maximize the number of mounds while minimizing territorial conflicts. By modeling the interactions of termites, rainfall, soil, and plants, researchers now show that the termite mounds are an insurance policy against climate change, protecting the vegetation on them from water scarcity.

  • * in Mpala Research Centre, Kenya