Termites help microbes decomposing dead plant material under dry conditions

What is it about?

Microbes are responsible for decomposing dead plant material and convert it into nutrients that become available again for plants, a process that is essential for the functioning of ecosystems. However, microbial activity decreases under cold or dry conditions, so that dead plant material can accumulate. Termites help fungi under such dry conditions by creating moist chambers inside their mounds and providing them dead plant material. We have shown here that this action of termites keeps up the process of decomposition on the ecosystem level under dry conditions in contrast to free living microbes that become less active.

Why is it important?

Climate change predicts more frequent and intense droughts in large parts of Africa (and other regions of the world). It is expected that this will have important consequences for the functioning of ecosystems. Our research has shown that key organisms such as termites can buffer such ecosystem functions, like decomposition of dead plant material, against variation in climate. Protection of these organisms is therefore crucial to improve the resistance of ecosystem to climate change.


The key message of the paper is that the functioning of natural systems is not just a result of the abiotic conditions (water and nutrient availability, temperature, pH) that occur in a specific area, but that organisms can exert strong control over these conditions and important ecosystem processes. This suggests that such organisms can function as a buffer against climate change. Investigating these effect and conservation of these organisms is therefore crucial with the current predictions on the changing climate.