Navigation Links
Lowly termite, not the lion or elephant, may be the star of Africa's savanna

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 they were to mounds, and animal populations and reproductive rates fell off appreciably with greater distance.

What was observed on the ground was even clearer in satellite imagery. Each mound relatively inconspicuous on the Kenyan grassland stood at the center of a burst of floral productivity. More important, these bursts were highly organized in relation to one another, evenly dispersed as if squares on a checkerboard. The result is an optimized network of plant and animal output closely tied to the ordered distribution of termite mounds.

"In essence, the highly regular spatial pattern of fertile mounds generated by termites actually increases overall levels of ecosystem production. And it does so in such a profound way," Palmer said. "Seen from above, the grid-work of termite mounds in the savanna is not just a pretty picture. The over-dispersion, or regular distribution of these termite mounds, plays an important role in elevating the services this ecosystem provides."

The mechanism through which termite activity is transformed into far-reaching effects on the ecosystem is a complex one. Pringle and Palmer suspect termites import coarse particles into the otherwise fine soil in the vicinity of their mounds. These coarser particles promote water infiltration of the soil, even as they discourage disruptive shrinking and swelling of topsoil in response to precipitation or drought.

The mounds also show elevated levels of nutrients such as phosphorus and nitrogen. All this beneficial soil alteration appears to directly and indirectly mold ecosystem services far beyond the immediate vicinity of the mound.

While further studies will explore the mechanism through which these spatial patterns of termite mounds emerge, Pringle and Palmer suggest that the present work has implications beyond the basic questions of ecology.

"Termites are typically viewed as pests, and as threats to agricultural and livestock production," Pringle said. "But productivity of both wild and human-dominated landscapes may be more intricately tied to the pattern-generating organisms of the larger natural landscape than is commonly understood."


Contact: Todd Palmer
University of Florida

Related biology news :

1. The forests of the Basque Country are progressing -- slowly, according to research group
2. Freshwater fish at the top of the food chain evolve more slowly
3. Human ES cells progress slowly in myelins direction
4. Unusual microbial ropes grow slowly in cave lake
5. Dry Tortugas show positive trends: Protected area slowly rebounding
6. Slowly-developing primates definitely not dim-witted
7. Lowly Icelandic midges reveal ecosystems tipping points
8. Savanna habitat drives birds, and perhaps others, to cooperative breeding
Post Your Comments:
(Date:9/29/2015)... excited to be named one of the first 100 IBM ... was recently made at an invite-only IBM Watson: Fueling ... , where iDAvatars presented a demo of its Intelligent ... is both an honor and a privilege to be one ... cognitive power of IBM Watson in our product, which empowers ...
(Date:9/28/2015)... -- According to a new market research ... & Others), Application (Access Control & Others), Industry (Travel ... Global - Forecast to 2020", published by MarketsandMarkets, the Iris ... by 2020, at a CAGR of 23.40% between 2015 ... T ables and 66 Figures spread ...
(Date:9/24/2015)... Publiceringsförbud fram till: ... Kerv ( ), det Londonbaserade ... första kontaktlösa betalningsring på i ett ... för massproduktion via crowdfunding.       ... Kerv-bärare kan göra direkta kontaktlösa betalningar ...
Breaking Biology News(10 mins):
(Date:10/13/2015)... ... October 13, 2015 , ... AxioMx ... that it has received a Phase I Small Business Innovative Research (SBIR) grant ... of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS), will fund the development of a technique to ...
(Date:10/13/2015)... , October 13, 2015 ... and development company, has entered into a strategic relationship ... and Paris, France ... --> --> This collaborative arrangement gives ... respected scientific advisory team as well as long established ...
(Date:10/13/2015)... YORK , Oct. 13, 2015  According ... laboratory services will reach $102 billion by the ... part of the health industry, as it is ... a result of laboratory tests. In addition to ... performed to evaluate disease progression, monitor drug treatment ...
(Date:10/13/2015)... ... October 13, 2015 , ... Exotic Automation ... handling solutions and components, is opening its latest Parker Store retail location in ... is Exotic’s second major expansion in Metropolitan Detroit in less than a year. ...
Breaking Biology Technology: