rows of termite mounds, West Australia
Red earth termite mounds, West Australia

An unexpected boost for tropical trees

Although the news will be of little consolation to home owners, it appears that termites – those voracious consumers of unprotected timber – may be beneficial to rainforest trees.

During an extreme drought that struck the island of Borneo in 2015-16, researchers studied eight widely scattered plots on the forest floor. In four of the sites the termite mounds were levelled, and the surviving insects poisoned. In the other four areas, the insects were left alone.

In the plots with intact mounds and nests, soil moisture at a depth of 5 cm was 36 percent higher during the drought than it was in plots where termite activity was disrupted.

Moist environment

Termites generally require a moist environment and, when necessary, will dig down dozens of meters to bring water up to their living spaces, the scientists noted.

That termite-induced boost in near-surface soil moisture was beneficial to plants during the drought, the researchers reported. Seedlings of vines transplanted into areas where termites remained active were 51 percent more likely to survive than those in areas without the termites.

As the climate changes, droughts will be more frequent, and the researchers believe the resourceful termite may play an increasingly important role – particularly in rainforest productivity and biodiversity.


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