Termite mound paradises help buffer dry land against climate change

Thank some insect colonies for helping fragile ecosystems cope with drought

termites on mound

UP AND AWAY  Ready to serve as ecosystem engineers buffering dry lands against droughts, termites fly out a vent in their first home as the rainy season starts. If all goes well, they’ll start their own colonies. 

R. Pringle/Princeton

Termite mounds may help protect arid landscapes in Africa from turning into deserts as climate change exacerbates droughts.

New computer simulations of how stressed arid lands fall apart show that termite mounds and the lush green growth they foster can slow the slide into desert, Corina Tarnita of Princeton University and colleagues report in the Feb. 6 Science. These aren’t the termite species that bedevil human houses, but master architects that create vast underground tunnel networks topped by mounds. Nutrients collected and excreted by the colonies and water held by termite-tunneled soil nourishes plants, creating small islands of fertility.

While that’s good news for the landscape, it may make it more difficult to detect looming desertification crises via satellite, Tarnita notes. As rainfall dwindles, those termite islands stay green for a long time, forming a rough hexagonal lattice. This polka-dot vegetation pattern mimics the final stages of a landscape’s collapse.  

aerial photo of termite mounds in Mozambique
SPOT THE DOTS Termite mounds seen from the air in Mozambique become lush, green refuges as their surroundings dry out. The pattern may make it look like a place on the verge of a catastrophic shift to becoming a desert, but new research shows it’s more resilient than it looks. R. Pringle/Princeton

Susan Milius is the life sciences writer, covering organismal biology and evolution, and has a special passion for plants, fungi and invertebrates. She studied biology and English literature.

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