Termite colonies mature like human cities

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Termite colonies mature like human cities

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New research examines the remarkably long lifespans of several subterranean termite colonies in Formosa.

The scientists learned that each termite colony can try different strategies to optimize its chances of survival and reproductive success.

“Scientists have often observed ant and termite colonies over short periods of time to study intriguing behaviors of these complex social animals,” says Thomas Chouvenc, assistant professor of urban entomology at the University of Florida/Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences at Fort Lauderdale Research and Education Centre.

“However, no one has been able to trace the demographic history of an entire colony over its entire lifetime, which can span decades.”

Scientists from the University of Florida monitored colonies of Formosa’s subterranean termites on site monthly until the project ended in 2009.

“The outcome of this effort led to a treasure trove of information that revealed unknown aspects of the complex biology of a termite colony, and it provided unique explanations for why some subterranean termite species may be so good at being troublesome building pests,” says Chouvenc.

“With more than 15,000 data points and a dozen different variables from many colonies collected over decades, it took us dozens of independent studies and more than another decade to analyze this data set and make sense of it,” says Chouvenc.

For the first time, the researchers observed changes in population structure within four independent termite colonies over an observation period of 10 to 24 years.

Scientists have found that a full-fledged termite colony can produce thousands of alates, the winged termites, that fly off to start new colonies each year for several decades.

“Initially we thought that all four colonies would follow similar demographic and reproductive patterns. However, each colony had a unique profile, leading us to conclude that each colony may have a unique demographic individuality,” says Chouvenc.

The researchers also found that colonies can lose their original primary king and/or queen, but can produce many secondary reproductive queens and kings to maintain reproductive performance over long inbreeding cycles.

“What was fascinating about these findings was that some colonies failed to produce replacement queens and kings and died after three years of colony aging,” says Chouvenc. “On the other hand, some colonies have been able to produce more than 1,300 surrogate queens and kings and have been thriving for more than a decade.”

In fact, this dataset showed that each colony’s demographics are unique because of their perenniality, he says.

“Now that we know how complex and varied that is, we can now take this information into account when implementing future pest control solutions.” Chouvenc notes.

The study, published in Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution, shows that a mature Formosaan termite colony has many options and strategies to optimize its reproductive performance, and can switch from one strategy to another over the decades in order to survive.

Chouvenc also compares the finding to the changes that take place in a large city over time, e.g. B. the changes in demographic composition, building architecture and economic productivity over a 75 to 100 year history.

“It’s similar with termites, but to a different extent, where the colony undergoes a change of generations every three to four years. A colony’s demographic outcome changes due to changes in reproductive strategies, physiological flexibilities, and environmental changes,” notes Chouvenc. “In a way, just like our cities, termite colonies are resilient and changing over generations. Just as every town is unique, so every termite colony is unique as well.”

Source: University of Florida