Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:

 

Lowly termite, not the lion or elephant, may be the star of Africa's savanna

26.05.2010
The majestic animals most closely associated with the African savanna -- fierce lions, massive elephants, towering giraffes – may be relatively minor players when it comes to shaping the ecosystem.

The king of the savanna appears to be the termite, say ecologists who've found that these humble creatures contribute mightily to grassland productivity in central Kenya via a network of uniformly distributed colonies. Termite mounds greatly enhance plant and animal activity at the local level, while their even distribution over a larger area maximizes ecosystem-wide productivity.

The finding, published this week in the journal PLoS Biology, affirms a counterintuitive approach to population ecology: Often, it's the small things that matter most.

"One of the kind of typical things I think that people think about is, what drives a savanna in terms of its structure and function?" said Todd Palmer, one of the paper's authors and an assistant professor of biology at the University of Florida."We think about big animals, but these termites are having a massive impact on the system from below."

Said Robert M. Pringle, a research fellow at Harvard University and the lead author, "As (famed biologist) E.O. Wilson likes to point out, in many respects it's the little things that run the world."

Prior research on the Kenya dwarf gecko initially drew Pringle's attention to the peculiar role of grassy termite mounds, which in this part of Kenya are some 30 feet in diameter and spaced some 180 to 300 feet apart. Each mound teems with millions of termites, who build the mounds over the course of centuries.

After observing unexpectedly high numbers of lizards in the vicinity of mounds, Pringle, Palmer and their colleagues began to quantify ecological productivity relative to mound density. They found that each mound supported dense aggregations of flora and fauna: Plants grew more rapidly the closer they were to mounds, and animal populations and reproductive rates fell off appreciably with greater distance.

What was observed on the ground was even clearer in satellite imagery. Each mound – relatively inconspicuous on the Kenyan grassland – stood at the center of a burst of floral productivity. More important, these bursts were highly organized in relation to one another, evenly dispersed as if squares on a checkerboard. The result is an optimized network of plant and animal output closely tied to the ordered distribution of termite mounds.

"In essence, the highly regular spatial pattern of fertile mounds generated by termites actually increases overall levels of ecosystem production. And it does so in such a profound way," Palmer said. "Seen from above, the grid-work of termite mounds in the savanna is not just a pretty picture. The over-dispersion, or regular distribution of these termite mounds, plays an important role in elevating the services this ecosystem provides."

The mechanism through which termite activity is transformed into far-reaching effects on the ecosystem is a complex one. Pringle and Palmer suspect termites import coarse particles into the otherwise fine soil in the vicinity of their mounds. These coarser particles promote water infiltration of the soil, even as they discourage disruptive shrinking and swelling of topsoil in response to precipitation or drought.

The mounds also show elevated levels of nutrients such as phosphorus and nitrogen. All this beneficial soil alteration appears to directly and indirectly mold ecosystem services far beyond the immediate vicinity of the mound.

While further studies will explore the mechanism through which these spatial patterns of termite mounds emerge, Pringle and Palmer suggest that the present work has implications beyond the basic questions of ecology.

"Termites are typically viewed as pests, and as threats to agricultural and livestock production," Pringle said. "But productivity – of both wild and human-dominated landscapes – may be more intricately tied to the pattern-generating organisms of the larger natural landscape than is commonly understood."

Pringle and Palmer's co-authors on the PLoS Biology paper are Daniel F. Doak of the Mpala Research Centre and the University of Wyoming; Alison K. Brody of the Mpala Research Centre and the University of Vermont; and Rudy Jocqué of the Royal Museum for Central Africa in Tervuren, Belgium. Their work was supported by the Sherwood Family Foundation and the National Science Foundation.

Todd Palmer | EurekAlert!
Further information:
http://www.ufl.edu

More articles from Ecology, The Environment and Conservation:

nachricht Upcycling 'fast fashion' to reduce waste and pollution
03.04.2017 | American Chemical Society

nachricht Litter is present throughout the world’s oceans: 1,220 species affected
27.03.2017 | Alfred-Wegener-Institut, Helmholtz-Zentrum für Polar- und Meeresforschung

All articles from Ecology, The Environment and Conservation >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: Deep inside Galaxy M87

The nearby, giant radio galaxy M87 hosts a supermassive black hole (BH) and is well-known for its bright jet dominating the spectrum over ten orders of magnitude in frequency. Due to its proximity, jet prominence, and the large black hole mass, M87 is the best laboratory for investigating the formation, acceleration, and collimation of relativistic jets. A research team led by Silke Britzen from the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy in Bonn, Germany, has found strong indication for turbulent processes connecting the accretion disk and the jet of that galaxy providing insights into the longstanding problem of the origin of astrophysical jets.

Supermassive black holes form some of the most enigmatic phenomena in astrophysics. Their enormous energy output is supposed to be generated by the...

Im Focus: A Quantum Low Pass for Photons

Physicists in Garching observe novel quantum effect that limits the number of emitted photons.

The probability to find a certain number of photons inside a laser pulse usually corresponds to a classical distribution of independent events, the so-called...

Im Focus: Microprocessors based on a layer of just three atoms

Microprocessors based on atomically thin materials hold the promise of the evolution of traditional processors as well as new applications in the field of flexible electronics. Now, a TU Wien research team led by Thomas Müller has made a breakthrough in this field as part of an ongoing research project.

Two-dimensional materials, or 2D materials for short, are extremely versatile, although – or often more precisely because – they are made up of just one or a...

Im Focus: Quantum-physical Model System

Computer-assisted methods aid Heidelberg physicists in reproducing experiment with ultracold atoms

Two researchers at Heidelberg University have developed a model system that enables a better understanding of the processes in a quantum-physical experiment...

Im Focus: Glacier bacteria’s contribution to carbon cycling

Glaciers might seem rather inhospitable environments. However, they are home to a diverse and vibrant microbial community. It’s becoming increasingly clear that they play a bigger role in the carbon cycle than previously thought.

A new study, now published in the journal Nature Geoscience, shows how microbial communities in melting glaciers contribute to the Earth’s carbon cycle, a...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>

Anzeige

Anzeige

Event News

Expert meeting “Health Business Connect” will connect international medical technology companies

20.04.2017 | Event News

Wenn der Computer das Gehirn austrickst

18.04.2017 | Event News

7th International Conference on Crystalline Silicon Photovoltaics in Freiburg on April 3-5, 2017

03.04.2017 | Event News

 
Latest News

New quantum liquid crystals may play role in future of computers

21.04.2017 | Physics and Astronomy

A promising target for kidney fibrosis

21.04.2017 | Health and Medicine

Light rays from a supernova bent by the curvature of space-time around a galaxy

21.04.2017 | Physics and Astronomy

VideoLinks
B2B-VideoLinks
More VideoLinks >>>