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Termites mitigate the effects of drought in tropical rainforest

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Science  11 Jan 2019:
Vol. 363, Issue 6423, pp. 174-177
DOI: 10.1126/science.aau9565

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  • RE: RE: Termites mitigate the effects of drought in tropical rainforest
    • Louise A Ashton, Assistant Professor, Department of Life Sciences, Natural History Museum, London, School of Biological Sciences, The University of Hong Kong
    • Other Contributors:
      • Hannah M Griffiths, Postdoctoral researcher, School of Environmental Sciences, University of Liverpool, Liverpool, L69 3GP, UK
      • Catherine L Parr, Professor of Ecology, School of Environmental Sciences, University of Liverpool, Liverpool, L69 3GP, UK
      • Theo A Evans, Associate Professor, School of Biological Sciences, University of Western Australia, Perth, Australia
      • Raphael K Didham, Professor of Ecology, School of Biological Sciences, University of Western Australia, Perth, Australia, CSIRO Health and Biosecurity
      • Fevziye Hasan, PhD researcher, University of Waikato
      • Yit A Teh, Reader in Ecology, School of Biological Sciences, University of Aberdeen, Aberdeen, UK
      • H. S Tin, Universiti Malaysia Sabah, Kota Kinabalu, Sabah, Malaysia
      • Charles S. Vairappan, Universiti Malaysia Sabah, Kota Kinabalu, Sabah, Malaysia
      • Paul Eggleton, Merit Researcher, Department of Life Sciences, Natural History Museum, London, UK

    Recently, we showed that termites mitigate the effects of drought (1), based on evidence from targeted suppression of wood-feeding termites in a tropical rainforest in Malaysia. In their response (2), Dahlsjö et al. make the important point that global extrapolation of these findings to rainforests in general will require additional evidence on the functional roles of soil-feeding termites, and the relative importance of termite functional groups across biogeographic regions. While we agree with this point, we disagree that the qualitative outcome of our experiments would necessarily vary across tropical rainforests in other biogeographic provinces.

    Dahlsjö et al. suggest that because our method suppressed wood-feeding termites, the higher abundance and biomass of soil-feeding termites in other biogeographic areas would make the effect of wood-feeding termites negligible in these regions. At a trivial level, wood-feeder suppression would naturally have ‘no effect’ if wood-feeders were rare or absent in other tropical rainforests, but this is not the case. First, although termites had deep ‘African’ origins in Pangaea 170 million years ago, Africa did not separate completely from other continents for another 100 million years (3). Through vicariance and dispersal, almost all forms of wood-feeding to soil-feeding functional groups (4-6) are found in all biogeographic provinces. Second, Dahlsjö et al. note that south-east Asian rainforest are dominated by fungus-growin...

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    Competing Interests: None declared.
  • RE: Termites mitigate the effects of drought in tropical rainforest
    • Cecilia Anna Linnea Dahlsjö, Postdoctoral Researcher, Environmental Change Institute, School of Geography and the Environment, University of Oxford, South Parks Road, OX1 3QL, Oxford
    • Other Contributors:
      • Nathalie Butt, Research Fellow, School of Biological Sciences, The University of Queensland, St. Lucia, 4072, Australia
      • Yadvinder Malhi, Professor of Ecosystem Science, Environmental Change Institute, School of Geography and the Environment, University of Oxford, South Parks Road, OX1 3QL, Oxford

    In their Report “Termites mitigate the effects of drought in tropical rainforest” (11 January, p. 174), L. A. Ashton et al. show the benefits of wood-feeding termites in Malaysia. Although this is an important finding for rainforests across southeast Asia, the results and methods cannot be simply extrapolated to other tropical rainforests or for termites in general. While termites are recognized as some of the major contributors to ecosystem processes in tropical regions (1) their role varies across continents depending on the functional diversity of termite taxa. Termite biogeography is rarely recognized because studies tend to be conducted on single continents, which inevitably limits global-scale insights.
    Global termite biomass and functional characteristics are not homogenous; most strikingly, African forests tend to have higher termite biomass than those on other continents by an order of magnitude (2). Whereas southeast Asian rainforests are dominated by wood-feeding termites, African and South American rainforests are dominated by soil-feeding species (see (3) for a detailed account of termite evolutionary history). Ashton et al. eloquently show how wood-feeding mound-building termites (mainly fungus-growers) mitigate drought effects in a Bornean rainforest; however, we would expect very different results if the experiment were to be repeated on other continents. In Africa and South America, the difference between the control and the treatment plots would lik...

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    Competing Interests: None declared.