GAINESVILLE, Fla. --- The majestic animals most closely associated with the African savanna -- fierce lions, massive elephants, towering giraffes may be relatively minor players when it comes to shaping the ecosystem.
The king of the savanna appears to be the termite, say ecologists who've found that these humble creatures contribute mightily to grassland productivity in central Kenya via a network of uniformly distributed colonies. Termite mounds greatly enhance plant and animal activity at the local level, while their even distribution over a larger area maximizes ecosystem-wide productivity.
The finding, published this week in the journal PLoS Biology, affirms a counterintuitive approach to population ecology: Often, it's the small things that matter most.
"One of the kind of typical things I think that people think about is, what drives a savanna in terms of its structure and function?" said Todd Palmer, one of the paper's authors and an assistant professor of biology at the University of Florida."We think about big animals, but these termites are having a massive impact on the system from below."
Said Robert M. Pringle, a research fellow at Harvard University and the lead author, "As (famed biologist) E.O. Wilson likes to point out, in many respects it's the little things that run the world."
Prior research on the Kenya dwarf gecko initially drew Pringle's attention to the peculiar role of grassy termite mounds, which in this part of Kenya are some 30 feet in diameter and spaced some 180 to 300 feet apart. Each mound teems with millions of termites, who build the mounds over the course of centuries.
After observing unexpectedly high numbers of lizards in the vicinity of mounds, Pringle, Palmer and their colleagues began to quantify ecological productivity relative to mound density. They found that each mound supported dense aggregations of flora and fauna: Plants grew more rapidly the closer the
|Contact: Todd Palmer|
University of Florida