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 Global threat to primates concerns us all
19.01.2017 | Deutsches Primatenzentrum GmbH - Leibniz-Institut für Primatenforschung

nachricht Reducing household waste with less energy
18.01.2017 | FIZ Karlsruhe – Leibniz-Institut für Informationsinfrastruktur GmbH

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: Scientists spin artificial silk from whey protein

X-ray study throws light on key process for production

A Swedish-German team of researchers has cleared up a key process for the artificial production of silk. With the help of the intense X-rays from DESY's...

Im Focus: Quantum optical sensor for the first time tested in space – with a laser system from Berlin

For the first time ever, a cloud of ultra-cold atoms has been successfully created in space on board of a sounding rocket. The MAIUS mission demonstrates that quantum optical sensors can be operated even in harsh environments like space – a prerequi-site for finding answers to the most challenging questions of fundamental physics and an important innovation driver for everyday applications.

According to Albert Einstein's Equivalence Principle, all bodies are accelerated at the same rate by the Earth's gravity, regardless of their properties. This...

Im Focus: Traffic jam in empty space

New success for Konstanz physicists in studying the quantum vacuum

An important step towards a completely new experimental access to quantum physics has been made at University of Konstanz. The team of scientists headed by...

Im Focus: How gut bacteria can make us ill

HZI researchers decipher infection mechanisms of Yersinia and immune responses of the host

Yersiniae cause severe intestinal infections. Studies using Yersinia pseudotuberculosis as a model organism aim to elucidate the infection mechanisms of these...

Im Focus: Interfacial Superconductivity: Magnetic and superconducting order revealed simultaneously

Researchers from the University of Hamburg in Germany, in collaboration with colleagues from the University of Aarhus in Denmark, have synthesized a new superconducting material by growing a few layers of an antiferromagnetic transition-metal chalcogenide on a bismuth-based topological insulator, both being non-superconducting materials.

While superconductivity and magnetism are generally believed to be mutually exclusive, surprisingly, in this new material, superconducting correlations...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>

Anzeige

Anzeige

Event News

Sustainable Water use in Agriculture in Eastern Europe and Central Asia

19.01.2017 | Event News

12V, 48V, high-voltage – trends in E/E automotive architecture

10.01.2017 | Event News

2nd Conference on Non-Textual Information on 10 and 11 May 2017 in Hannover

09.01.2017 | Event News

 
Latest News

Breaking the optical bandwidth record of stable pulsed lasers

24.01.2017 | Physics and Astronomy

Choreographing the microRNA-target dance

24.01.2017 | Life Sciences

Spanish scientists create a 3-D bioprinter to print human skin

24.01.2017 | Health and Medicine

VideoLinks
B2B-VideoLinks
More VideoLinks >>>