Termites Help Combat Desertification

Although they are annoying when they eat the furniture, termites play an important role against desertification and facilitate that the semiarid areas are more resistant to climate change, according to a study published in the journal Science.

In the grasslands, savannahs or arid areas of South America, Africa and Asia, the mounds that build termites store nutrients and moisture.

And, thanks to the numerous tunnels and cavities built by this voracious insect, water can penetrate the soil better, according to the authors of the research.

Thus, vegetation proliferates both in the mounds of termites and in their suburbs, creating an ecosystem that would otherwise be more vulnerable to desertification.

“The amount of rain that falls is the same everywhere, but it seems that termites allow water to be distributed better in the soil. Plants grow in their vicinity as if they were more humid,” said Corina Tarnita, assistant professor of ecology and biology at Princeton University and one of the principal authors of the study.

Based on these observations, the scientists developed a computer model to determine the impact of termites on different ecosystems.

Jef Huisman, a professor of aquatic microbiology at the University of Amsterdam, believes that this research – in which he did not participate – renders obsolete methods of combating desertification that are currently used and that do not take into account the complexity of nature.

Climate models must take more into account the impact of organisms such as termites and mussels, which “create their own environment,” Huisman estimated.

This unexpected function of termites in savannas and meadows suggests that ants, prairie dogs (a relative of marmots), squirrels and other animals that dig burrows can also play an important role in the health of ecosystems, said Robert Pringle, associate professor of ecology at Princeton and co-author of the study.

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