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New Classification Identifies Termites As Cockroaches With Social Hierarchies

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The Entomological Society of America updates its database and includes termites in the same category as cockroaches. Termites are now under the order Blattodea.

Based on its February 15 update, the ESA has officially recategorized termites as cockroaches. The database will be updated to reclassify all families of termites.

"It's official that termites no longer have their own order," says Mike Merchant of Texas A&M University in College Station, chair of ESA's common names committee.

The ESA common names database is an essential reference for anyone who works with insects. It includes more than 2,000 common names and is searchable by common name, scientific name, author, order, family, genus, and species.

Termites Are Now Cockroaches

After years of debate, the committee had voted unanimously and decided to terminate the termite order and list it alongside cockroaches.

There are 3,500 known species of cockroaches, and 55 can be found in the United States. More than 40 species are associated with human habitats and four species are known as pests.

The entire termite kingdom is now included in the large order of cockroaches known as Blattodea. Termites now have the taxonomic rank of infraorder isopteran or epifamily Termitoidae under the cockroach order.

Before the reclassification, termites have their own order and are regarded as eusocial insects with social hierarchies.

Termite Kingdom

Termites range from one-fourth to one-half of an inch in length. Termite queens and kings are larger, with some measuring over an inch. Termite workers are often identified through their pale color and soft bodies. Flying termites that have two pairs of prominent wings are called reproductives.

The most common types of termites are the damp-wood, dry-wood, Formosan, and Subterranean termites. Although sometimes referred to as "white ants," termites are much more related to cockroaches.

Eusocial Insects

This reclassification did not come as a surprise to the community. A 2007 study on the molecular and phylogenetic composition of termites confirms that termites as eusocial cockroaches.

"Termites are mound-builders and house-eaters and their complex social lifestyles have made them incredibly successful throughout the tropics. Our molecular phylogenetic analyses, the most comprehensive yet attempted, show that termites are social cockroaches, no longer meriting being classified as a separate order from the cockroaches," says Daegan Inward, study author and a Ph.D. student in the laboratory of Alfried Vogler at the Natural History Museum in London.

The study proposed then that termites should be treated as a family of cockroaches.

"Termites are evolved wood-feeding cockroaches with full sociality as other ecologically dominant fully social insects such as ants, social bees and social wasps," added Inward.

A more recent study published in Nature Ecology and Evolution validates that termites are eusocial insects that evolved from within cockroaches. Researchers of the study compared the genomes of the German cockroach, Blattella germanica, and that of the dry-wood termite Cryptotermes secundus.

They found out that adaptive changes in the genes of termites are accompanied with major changes in gene regulation and the molecular evolution of caste determination.

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