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Termites foretell climate change in Africa's savannas
Date:9/7/2010

Palo Alto, CAUsing sophisticated airborne imaging and structural analysis, scientists at the Carnegie Institution's Department of Global Ecology mapped more than 40,000 termite mounds over 192 square miles in the African savanna. They found that their size and distribution is linked to vegetation and landscape patterns associated with annual rainfall. The results reveal how the savanna terrain has evolved and show how termite mounds can be used to predict ecological shifts from climate change. The research is published in the September 7, 2010, advanced online edition of Nature Communications.

Mound-building termites in the study area of Kruger National Park in South Africa tend to build their nests in areas that are not too wet, nor too dry, but are well drained, and on slopes of savanna hills above boundaries called seeplines. Seeplines form where water has flowed belowground through sandy, porous soil and backs up at areas rich in clay. Typically woody trees prefer the well-drained upslope side where the mounds tend to locate, while grasses dominate the wetter areas down slope.

"These relationships make the termite mounds excellent indicators of the geology, hydrology, and soil conditions," commented lead author Shaun Levick at Carnegie. "And those conditions affect what plants grow and thus the entire local ecosystem. We looked at the mound density, size, and location on the hills with respect to the vegetation patterns."

Most research into the ecology of these savannas has focused on the patterns of woody trees and shorter vegetation over larger, regional scales. Work at the smaller, hill-slope scales has, until now, been limited to 2-dimensional studies on specific hillsides. The Carnegie research was conducted by the Carnegie Airborne Observatory (CAO)a unique airborne mapping system that operates much like a diagnostic medical scan. It can penetrate the canopy all the way to the soil level and probe about 40,000 ac
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Contact: Greg Asner
gpa@stanford.edu
650-380-2828
Carnegie Institution
Source:Eurekalert  

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