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How termite behaviour is linked to a warming world: Findings of a new study – The Indian Express

A recent study has found that termites decompose wood at a much higher rate in warmer conditions. For every 10 degrees Celsius increase in temperature, their decomposition activity goes up by almost seven times, it added.

Published in Science, the study also revealed that as the Earth gets warmer, termites will rapidly spread across the world. This could, in turn, lead to a further rise in global temperatures, because these small insects while consuming deadwood release carbon into the atmosphere.

“This study is one of the first that connects the dots among a species’ movement, changes in an ecosystem process, and climate change to show that the movement of an organism as small as a termite can cascade to impact the rate that wood—a global carbon stock—is decomposed,” Aimée Classen, biologist at University of Michigan and co-author of the study, said in a statement.

Details of the research

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There are around 3,000 species of termites across the world, including the ones that consume plant material and even soil. However, the most famous are the wood-eating termites.

According to the researchers, the termites’ ability to decompose dead wood — dead parts of trees that contain carbon — makes them an important part of the planet’s ecosystem and that’s why the study focused on them.

For the research, more than 100 scientists were asked to place blocks of wood at 133 sites across the world, except in Antarctica, where bacteria, fungi and termites consume dead wood. They then measured the speed at which the wooden blocks were eaten in different climates.

As expected, both microbes and termites decomposed the pieces but the study found that there was a disproportionately higher increase in the insects’ decaying activity at higher temperatures. For instance, termites in a region with temperatures of 30 degrees Celsius ate wood seven times faster than in a place with temperatures of 20 degrees Celsius.

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The researcher also observed that these wood-eating termites were able to survive in warm and dry conditions, unlike microbes that need water to grow. Therefore, with “tropicalization (i.e., warming shifts to tropical climates), termite wood decay will likely increase as termites access more of Earth’s surface.”

Although these insects are already found in colder areas, they play a limited role in the decaying of wood in comparison to fungi and bacteria.

It is yet to be determined to what extent the termites will spread across the world, the study said.

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Previous studies have also shown that climate change might be leading to an increase in the number of termites. According to a report in The Washington Post, a 2017 study concluded that “12 of the world’s 13 most invasive termite species could increase significantly in distribution by 2050 given Earth’s current temperature trajectories.”

Another research by scientists at the University of Florida found that two Floridian varieties of termites were able to interbreed during warmer winters and hybridise into new “highly destructive super-termites”, said the report.

Termites and dead wood

It’s well-known that trees play a significant role in the global carbon cycle. They absorb carbon dioxide through the process of photosynthesis and help in keeping the atmospheric temperature low.

As a tree grows older, certain parts of it die and become dead wood, which is eventually decomposed by microbes and insects like termites. The decaying of dead wood results in the release of not only a variety of nutrients but also carbon.

According to the study, termites release carbon from dead wood in the form of carbon dioxide and methane, two of the most important greenhouse gases. So, an increase in termite population and their faster decomposing activity can cause more greenhouse emissions, resulting in a hotter planet.

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Amy Zanne, a University of Miami biology professor and co-author of the study, said in a statement, “Microbes are globally important when it comes to wood decay, but we have largely overlooked the role of termites in this process”. She added, “This means we are not accounting for the massive effect these insects could pose for future carbon cycling and interactions with climate change.”

Other consequences of climate change

It isn’t just the termites that are affected. Researchers have found that with soaring global temperatures, a wide range of animals, plants and other organisms have changed their behaviour, resulting in the deterioration of the health of ecosystems.

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Studies have shown that once polar bears aren’t able to kill seals because of the shrinking Arctic sea ice, they might quickly move on to eat other creatures. This would threaten the existence of species like the Arctic fox or the walrus. Not only this, it might also lead to the overpopulation of seals, which can then endanger the survival of crustaceans and fish that are an important food source for local human populations.

In February 2022, a study found that higher temperatures are making plants across the British Isles flower, on average, a month earlier than they used to, according to a CNN report. Scientists said it could trigger a chain of events that would result in the “collapse” of entire species.

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