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Overview

Brief Summary

Isoptera consists of over 2600 species (mostly tropical). Termites are the oldest social insect group with complex societies dating back at least to the early Cretaceous (140 Mya). Only 12 species occur in Europe. Recent studies have shown that Isoptera are basically social cockroaches forming a monophyletic clade within the Blattodea, most likely the sister group of the Cryptocercidae (woodroaches) (Inward et al. 2007). Termites are the only hemimetabolous insects that exhibit true social behavior. They build large nests housing an entire colony. These colonies contain adult reproductives (one queen and one king) plus hundreds or thousands of immatures that serve as workers and soldiers. Termites are important decomposer animals in lowland tropical ecosystems. They mostly feed on dead plant material and are able to digest cellulose with the help of symbiotic gut symbionts.

  • Inward DJG, Beccaloni GW, Eggleton P (2007) Death of an order: a comprehensive molecular
  • phylogenetic study confi rms that termites are eusocial cockroaches. Biology Letters 3: 331–335.
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Isoptera Overview

About 2, 900 termites have been described worldwide.  They undergo simple metamorphosis.  They are eusocial insects and nymphs grow into one of the castes, where they will specialize in a job for the colony.  A colony would consist of: a king, a queen, workers, and soldiers.  The colony lives in nests, which are mostly built with saliva, mud, and soil.  Nests are typically underground, but some can grow above the surface, with some of the tallest going thirty feet high.  Termites have soft bodies that need to be kept moist and the nests provide the necessary protection and thermoregulation for the colony to survive.  They frequently groom each other with their mouths.  Termites feed on wood, leaf litter, or soil.  They have bacteria in their gut, which aids with the digestion of cellulose.  As detritivores, they play a huge role in nutrient cycling.  They can be found in the fossil record as far back as the Late Triassic.

  • Borror, Donald, Charles Triplehorn, and Norman Johnson. An Introduction to the Study of Insects. 6th ed. Saunders College Publishing, 1989. 234-241. Print.
  • Capinera, John. "Termites (Isoptera)." Encyclopedia of Entomology. 4. 2008.
  • Preston-Mafham, Rod, and Ken Preston-Mafham. "Termites."Encyclopedia of Insects and Spiders. San Diego: 2005.
  • "Termite." Wikipedia. 2013. .
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Summary

There are over 2,600 species of termite. These winged insects are related to cockroaches. They are known for eating wood and other plant parts. Like bees, termites live in colonies led by a queen. Other termites are kings, workers, or soldiers.

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Introduction

Feed on wood and other vegetable matter. Termitidae have symbiotic bacteria, other families have symbiotic flagellate protozoans that secrete enzymes that aid in the digestion of wood.

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Comprehensive Description

Characteristics

Derived characteristics:
  • eusocial, with reproductives, soldiers, and workers of both sexes.
  • wings with basal sutures allowing them to be shed
  • external genitalia rudimentary or lacking

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Distribution

Geographic Range

There are approximately 2,300 species of termites worldwide. Most live in tropical and subtropical regions of the world. Others live in temperate regions of the world. Approximately 41 species of termites live in the United States, most of which live in the southwest.

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Physical Description

Morphology

Physical Description

Isopterans are soft-bodied, usually light-colored insects. The forewings and hindwings are equal in length and held flat against the back of the termite.

Range length: 7.0 to 15.0 mm.

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Ecology

Habitat

Termites are found in dark, damp areas whereby they are not exposed to air. They require a source of moisture to survive. In temperate regions, they are found in dead tree stumps, dead logs, and in the soil. They are also found in dry wood strucures where the termite nest has been established in the soil. Timber-based colonies may contain hundreds of individuals.

In tropical regions, termites are found where cellulose-rich food sources exist, in both living and dead vegetation. Some tropical termite species are known to raise giant mounds consisting of termite feces, soil, and fungi. These mounds may contain millions of individuals.

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Trophic Strategy

Food Habits

Isopterans get their nutrition from cellulose in wood. Digestion of wood occurs by bacteria and protozoans in the intestinal tract of many termites. Young termites acquire the microorganisms when workers feed them.

Some tropical termites use cultivated fungi to predigest food rather than microorganisms.

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Associations

Ecosystem Roles

Termites tunnel through wood allowing for decomposition of the wood into humus.

Mutualist Species:

  • bacteria (intestinal)
  • protozoans (intestinal)

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Predation

Termites nests have special members that act as soldiers. They have extra big jaws, or sometimes chemical sprays to use on enemies of the nest. Soldiers and workers defend the nest.

Known Predators:

  • Formicidae
  • nematodes
  • Coleoptera
  • Ursidae
  • Coleoptera
  • Aves
  • Anura
  • Chilopoda

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Known predators

  • E. Holm and C. H. Scholtz, Structure and pattern of the Namib Desert dune ecosystem at Gobabeb, Madoqua 12(1):3-39, from p. 21 (1980).
  • I. K. Sharma, A study of ecosystems of the Indian desert, Trans. Indian Soc. Desert Technol. and Univ. Center Desert Stud. 5(2):51-55, from p. 52 and A study of agro-ecosystems in the Indian desert, ibid. 5:77-82, from p. 79 1980).
  • Waide RB, Reagan WB (eds) (1996) The food web of a tropical rainforest. University of Chicago Press, Chicago
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Known prey organisms

Isoptera (isoptera) preys on:
detritus
Eleucine
Cyperus
Cenchrus
live wood
dead wood
wood

Based on studies in:
Namibia, Namib Desert (Desert or dune)
Puerto Rico, El Verde (Rainforest)
India, Rajasthan Desert (Desert or dune)

This list may not be complete but is based on published studies.
  • E. Holm and C. H. Scholtz, Structure and pattern of the Namib Desert dune ecosystem at Gobabeb, Madoqua 12(1):3-39, from p. 21 (1980).
  • I. K. Sharma, A study of ecosystems of the Indian desert, Trans. Indian Soc. Desert Technol. and Univ. Center Desert Stud. 5(2):51-55, from p. 52 and A study of agro-ecosystems in the Indian desert, ibid. 5:77-82, from p. 79 1980).
  • Waide RB, Reagan WB (eds) (1996) The food web of a tropical rainforest. University of Chicago Press, Chicago
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Life History and Behavior

Behavior

Communication and Perception

The king and queen secrete inhibitory pheromones that work synergistically to suppress reproductive development of workers and soldiers. Juvenile hormones in termite eggs influence caste differentiation such that numbers of workers and soldiers remain constant throughout the life of the colony.

For termites that build giant mounds, trail pheromones are used in subterranean tunnels as a means of navigation.

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Life Cycle

Development

Termites develop via simple metamorphosis from egg to nymph to adult. Five to six molts are necessary for the termite to attain maturity. Those that do not achieve sexual maturity become workers or soldiers. The life cycle requires a year for completion.

Development - Life Cycle: metamorphosis

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Life Expectancy

Lifespan/Longevity

Queens and their colony may survive for several years. Females may live to 20 years. Non-reproductive termites live for a couple of years. Individual termite colonies have been known to exist for approximately 100 years.

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Reproduction

Mating System: eusocial

In termite colonies, there is one king and queen pair which develop from fully winged adults. The queen develops an enlarged abdomen to accomodate her increased egg-laying capacity. She may lay millions of eggs annually. In some species, the king is smaller than the female. These fully winged adults are produced in large numbers, whereby individuals leave the original colony, locate a new nest site and mate, and establish a new colony. This may not happen for 5 to 10 years after the establishment of the original colony.

If the king and/or queen dies, or part of the colony becomes separated from the parent colony, some of the young will develop into a new king and/or queen. The new king and/or queen will achieve sexual maturity without becoming fully winged and without leaving the nest.

Special workers and soldiers care for the eggs and young. Worker and soldier termites are both male and female, sterile, wingless, most are blind, amd sometimes they are polymorphic.

Key Reproductive Features: oviparous

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Evolution and Systematics

Systematics or Phylogenetics

Mantodea, Isoptera, and Blattaria are usually combined by entomologists into a higher group called Dictyoptera. Current evidence strongly suggests termites evolved directly from true cockroaches, and some authors now consider termites to be an epifamily of cockroaches (Eggleton et al. 2005), as the Blattaria excluding Isoptera are not a monophyletic group (Grimaldi & Engel 2005).

  • Eggleton, Paul, George Beccaloni and Daegan Inward. 2007. Response to Lo et al. Biol. Lett. 3(5):564-565. doi:10.1098/rsbl.2007.0367
  • Grimaldi, D. and M. S. Engel. 2005. Evolution of Insects. Cambridge University Press, New York.
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Functional Adaptations

Functional adaptation

Arches provide structural support: termites
 

The nests of termites gain structural support for chambers, ventilation shafts, and insulating cavities because arches are the main architectural element.

     
  "The basic building step in many termites involves gluing fecal pellets to make arches; the arches, supporting a network of other arches, provide most of the structural strength needed to support specialized chambers, ventilation shafts, and insulating cavities, and they supply convenient walkways as well. Recycling feces is a superb way to turn a problem into a solution…The construction of the arches goes well beyond flexibility and variation…Columns are neither too close nor too far apart to permit the subsequent construction of arches." (Gould and Gould 2007:142-144)
  Learn more about this functional adaptation.
  • Gould, James L; Gould, Carol Grant. 2007. Animal architects: building and the evolution of intelligence. New York: Basic Books. 324 p.
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Functional adaptation

Gut microbes digest cellulose: termites
 

Guts of termites digest cellulose via microbial symbionts.

   
  "Termites do not digest cellulose directly…instead they collect vegetation, chew it up, and leave the chemical breakdown to other organisms. There are two strategies. The most primitive termites swallow the vegetation and pass it to a fermentation chamber where anaerobic bacteria and protozoa break down the cellulose…More advanced species have a different feeding strategy. The energy source is still cellulose, but it is digested outside the termite's body…Fungi is the only kingdom of organisms able to digest cellulose in air, though they need warmth and humidity to do the job efficiently." (Gould and Gould 2007:132-133)
  Learn more about this functional adaptation.
  • Gould, James L; Gould, Carol Grant. 2007. Animal architects: building and the evolution of intelligence. New York: Basic Books. 324 p.
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Functional adaptation

Mounds shed water: West African termites
 

Mounds of West African termites are built to shed water via mushroom-like shape.

   
  "In West Africa and other areas where there is heavy rain, the colonies build nests like mushrooms with flat roofs which shed the water." (Attenborough 1979:100)
  Learn more about this functional adaptation.
  • Attenborough, David. 1979. Life on Earth. Boston, MA: Little, Brown and Company. 319 p.
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Functional adaptation

Ventilated nests remove heat and gas: termites
 

The ovoid nests of termites carry away dangerous accumulations of heat and carbon dioxide via ventilation shafts.

     
  "The outside of this ovoid bunker is perforated by a series of vents or tubes (or vents converging on circumferential tubes giving rise to more vents, or an arrangement even more elaborate); the structure of these vents and tubes is so unique that they are often used for species identification. As a rule, the vents run down from the inside to the outside, which would keep dripping moisture out and draw cool air up and into the structure. The entire home is suspended from all walls on arching pillars. Ventilation shafts bring cool fresh air in and carry warm stale air out." (Gould and Gould 2007:136)
  Learn more about this functional adaptation.
  • Gould, James L; Gould, Carol Grant. 2007. Animal architects: building and the evolution of intelligence. New York: Basic Books. 324 p.
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Molecular Biology and Genetics

Molecular Biology

Statistics of barcoding coverage

Barcode of Life Data Systems (BOLD) Stats
Specimen Records: 2628
Specimens with Sequences: 2033
Specimens with Barcodes: 1754
Species: 379
Species With Barcodes: 331
Public Records: 1539
Public Species: 163
Public BINs: 436
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Barcode data

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Relevance to Humans and Ecosystems

Benefits

Economic Importance for Humans: Negative

Termites cause extensive damage to buildings and any other sturcture made of wood.

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Economic Importance for Humans: Positive

In some cultures, termites queens are considered a delicacy and source of protein for humans. Termites are recyclers of wood.

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