Termites may be partly responsible for holding back deserts, protecting savannas, by building homes for plant life, a new study reveals.
Princeton University researchers found termite mounds worked as a barrier, preventing arid regions from encroaching into grasslands and agricultural areas. By those process, areas are preserved for large animals such as zebras and lions.
Desertification, the spread of deserts into other regions, can be held back by the termite mounds, due to the design of the formations. A complex network of tunnels throughout the mound provides pathways for water to permeate through the ground surface, and to surrounding vegetation. Additional moisture, as well as nutrients, are stored within the mound, providing additional resources to local plants. This effect allows drylands with termite mounds to maintain a diversity of life with significantly less rainfall than regions without such features.
"The vegetation on and around termite mounds persists longer and declines slower. Even when you get to such harsh conditions where vegetation disappears from the mounds, re-vegetation is still easier. As long as the mounds are there the ecosystem has a better chance to recover," Corina Tarnita, a biologist with Princeton University, said.
Termite mounds may be able to provide a degree of protection from climate change for some regions, researchers believe. The effect may be significant enough to warrant being included into future climate models.
As the climate of grasslands and savannas changes over time, the areas move between five stages which mark their move toward becoming a desert. Each of these conditions is marked by distinctive patterns of vegetation. By studying current conditions, researchers are able to determine conditions in a local area, as well as its likely near-future.
These patterns were found to exist on a scale significantly smaller than previously believed, in patterns consistent with the locations of termite mounds. This was particularly true for locations on the verge of being classified as deserts. This new study shows that these patterns can reveal areas where termite mounds are protecting locations from the spread of desert climates.
"This is an eye-opening study that says we really need to investigate these ecosystems in more detail and incorporate all these other mechanisms before we can say what will lead to a catastrophic collapse in ecosystem function. We should always be humble in our model predictions because nature can always be more complex than we initially anticipate," Jef Huisman, an aquatic microbiology professor at Princeton, stated in a university press release.
A wide variety of sciences, including biology, numerical analysis, and physics, were utilized during the examination of termite mounds.
Study of the role of termite mounds in holding back desertification was published in the journal Science.