A new study, co-led by a Griffith University researcher, has found termites are able to lessen the effects of drought in tropical rainforests.

Dr Louise Ashton is an Adjunct Fellow with Griffith’s Environmental Futures Research Institute who is also affiliated with the University of Hong Kong and the Natural History Museum in London.

The team collects insects from the leaf litter.

Dr Ashton worked with the Natural History Museum and the University of Liverpool on the first large-scale study to determine the role that termites play in rainforests in maintaining ecosystem processes in times of drought.

Termites act as ‘decomposers’ in ecosystems and facilitate nutrient cycling and enhance soil moisture. They are one of the few living organisms able to break down the cellulose in plant material.

The research team conducted the study in Malaysian Borneo during and after the 2015-16 El Nino drought, where they compared sites with termites to those where termites had been removed experimentally using suppression methods.

They found the sites where termites had not been experimentally suppressed saw an increase of termites during the drought, and fewer termites during the non-drought period.

The greater number of termites during drought yielded a higher rate of leaf litter decomposition and nutrient heterogeneity, as well as increased soil moisture and seedling survival compared with the non-drought period.

Professor Kate Parr from the University of Liverpool’s School of Environmental Sciences said: “Whilst there has been some work exploring how severe drought affects plants in tropical rainforests, our study shows for the first time that having termites helps protect forest from the effects of drought. Termites might only be small but collectively their presence can help reduce the effects of climate change in tropical systems.”

Treated toilet paper rolls were used to suppress the activity of termites.

Co-lead author Dr Hannah Griffiths from University of Liverpool’s school of Environmental Sciences said: “The results of our study are important because it shows that intact biological communities can act as a kind of ecological insurance by keeping ecosystems functioning in times of environmental stress.”

“Termites confer important ecosystem services, not only in pristine tropical rainforest but perhaps also in disturbed or even agricultural ecosystems,” Dr Ashton said.

“If termite abundance is reduced with disturbance, these habitats could be particularly sensitive to drought.”

Senior author Dr Paul Eggleton from the Natural History Museum said: “People are justrealisinghow important invertebrates are ecologically, particularly social insects. Termites and ants may well be the ‘little things that rule the world’.”

The paper ‘Termites mitigate the effects of drought in tropical rainforest’ is published inScience(doi/10.1126/science.aau9565).

The study was conducted in collaboration with the Natural History Museum.