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Chien C. Lee

Surprise: These termites are good for trees

When it comes to floorboards and furniture, termites get a bad rap. But there’s one type of wood they may be good for: the trees of rainforests.

During an extreme drought that struck the island of Borneo during late 2015 and early 2016, researchers studied eight widely scattered plots on the forest floor. In four of those 2500-square-meter areas, team members dug out or leveled termite mounds and then left poison baits for the insects that remained. In the other four areas, researchers left the insects alone.

In the plots with intact termite mounds and nests, soil moisture at a depth of 5 centimeters was 36% higher during the drought than it was in plots where termite activity was disrupted. Termites (above) generally require a moist environment and, when necessary, will dig down dozens of meters or more to bring water up to their living spaces, the scientists note.

That termite-induced boost in near-surface soil moisture was beneficial to plants during the drought, the researchers report today in Science: Seedlings of climbing vines transplanted into areas where termites remained active were 51% more likely to survive than those in areas without the wood-eating insects.

Because droughts are expected to occur more frequently in coming years as climate changes, termites may play an increasingly important role in rainforest productivity and biodiversity, the researchers suggest.