Tiny termites help drylands combat climate change: study

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Tiny termites are considered to be a serious threat to wood-based structures, but a new study out Thursday said that their large dirt mounds may help stabilize ecosystems in drylands and buffer them against climate change.

The results suggested spotted vegetation patterns created by termite mounds don't signal a dryland's impending collapse, as researchers have proposed, but instead serve as "oases" of plant life, according to the study published in the U.S. journal Science.

"I like to think of termites as linchpins of the ecosystem in more than one way," study author Robert Pringle, an assistant professor in ecology and evolutionary biology at the Princeton University, said in a statement.

"They increase the productivity of the system, but they also make it more stable, more resilient," Pringle said.

For the study, Pringle and colleagues used aerial photography to look at spotted vegetation patterns shaped either naturally due to lack of water or by termites.

They found termite mounds may store nutrients and moisture, and allow water to better penetrate the soil via internal tunnels. In other words, drylands with termite mounds can survive on significantly less rain than those without termite mounds.

As a result, vegetation flourishes on and near termite mounds in ecosystems that are otherwise highly vulnerable to " desertification," or the environment's collapse into desert, the researchers said.

The research was inspired by fungus-growing termites of the genus Odontotermes, but the results apply to all types of termites, they said.

Termite mounds also preserve seeds and plant life, which helps surrounding areas rebound faster once rainfall resumes, said corresponding author Corina Tarnita, a Princeton assistant professor in ecology and evolutionary biology.

"As long as the mounds are there, the ecosystem has a better chance to recover," Tarnita said.

The unexpected function of termites in savannas and grasslands also led researchers to believe ants, prairie dogs, gophers and other mound-building creatures could also have important roles in ecosystem health.

"This phenomenon and these patterned landscape features are common," Pringle said. "It's not always termites causing them, but they may very well have similar effects on the ecosystem." Endite

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