Termites Can Ward Off Deserts

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Termites have been discovered to hold back the movement and migration of deserts from disrupting farmland and semi-arid environments. Scientists explained that termites create oases of plant life from their mound habitats.

These immense termite mounds have the ability to store nutrients and moisture which provide protection for the flora in the area. Their underground tunnels also improve water flow to the surrounding roots under the soil. Princeton University scientists stated this is a very exciting find.

The meaning of these combined factors is that plant life is able to flourish in areas that are much too dry to support growth without the aid of termite mounds. Plant life in some areas of Asia, Africa, and South America are very vulnerable to desertification. This is the process in which migrating deserts destroy areas of flourishing plant life by taking away all necessary water and nutrients. Scientists explained that grassland, savannas, and other areas of land without much water-retaining ability are able to survive and be maintained with less amounts of water when the termite mounds are in the area.

Corina Tarnita, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, stated that rain coverage is the same everywhere. However, since the termites allow rain water to penetrate the soil better due to their micro mining of the soil, plants grow around and even on the massive mounds as if there were more water in the area. She also explained that termite mounds are vital in the protection of plant seeds during droughts and the annual dry season. Seeds germinate much faster around termite mounds after the first rain of the season comes.

Tarnita said that the vegetation on and around the mounds lasts much longer and deteriorates much slower. Even in periods of long, unabridged drought, when all plant life disappears from the area, re-vegetation is easier than in other areas. She said that as long as the mounds continue to pop up on fringe areas of desert, the ecosystem is able to recover in a quicker manner.

Robert Pringle, the study’s co-author, explained that moles, gophers, ants, and prairie dogs do the same thing as termites do in building their underground cities. He suggests that they may also be serving vital roles in the protection and preservation of the health and ecosystems in dry, arid areas around the world.

The phenomenon regarding the features of the patterned landscape is common. He said that it is not constantly termites that are causing the health of areas to be maintained. Though, they may very well have comparable effects on the ecology of the arid areas. More research needs to be done to see how each animal and insect effects vegetation and even what types of plants grow in separate areas. Pringle said that one would have to measure a small ecosystem to see what is manufacturing the mound and the properties, therein.

Other scientists have stated that vegetation patterns may be interpreted as the last stage onset of desertification. However, it could represent the exact opposite, thus reversing the detriment to the area. Nonetheless, the salvation of deserts, at least some, can be attributed to termites and their burrowing brethren.

By: Alex Lemieux


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Picture: Aleksey Gnilenkov – Flickr License