Seminar, Mon 03 May 2010: 4pm – Theodore Evans (CSIRO) on “New views on termite biology”

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“New views on termite biology: communication and ecosystem services”

Theodore Evans
Division of Entomology,
CSIRO, Australia

Mon 3rd May 2010: 4pm
@ NUS DBS Conference Room
For map, see: http://tinyurl.com/map-nusdbs

About the talk – This talk will discuss two different aspects of termite biology. The first is more fundamental and behavioural: how do termites gain information and communicate given the constraints of their biology? The second is more applied and environmental: what ecological functions do termites (and ants) have in soil and can humans harness them as ecosystem services?

[1] How do termites gain information and communicate given the constraints of their biology?
Communication and information gathering is essential for cooperative activities of social animals. Much research effort has been expended exploring chemical communication in termites, following the diverse examples observed in ants, yet only one family of pheromones has been found, those for trail following. Given the similarity of complexity of ant and termite social behaviours, clearly an alternative communication method must be used to coordinate termite activity.

One candidate is vibration and acoustical communication given soldier termites communicate warning to workers using vibrational alarm signals; first observed 220 years ago. My work has demonstrated that termites detect food quantity using vibrations generated by their chewing, use these signals to find nestmates, and to discriminate different species.

[2] What ecological functions do termites (and ants) have in soil and can humans harness them as ecosystem services?
Biodiversity provides critical beneficial ecosystem services, such as water purification, soil health and carbon sequestration, yet the ecosystem function underlying these services is poorly understood as they are regulated by small and prosaic organisms, such as ants and termites. Ants and termites regulate key ecological processes such as decomposition, nitrogen fixation, nutrient cycling, herbivory and seed dispersal, and are widely regarded as ‘ecosystem engineers’. However, whether they can be used to garner ecosystem services
remains largely untested.

Most of the small amount of available evidence comes from subsistence agricultural systems, so I tested whether industrial scale agriculture can use such services. I have completed a three year field experiment to measure ecosystem services provided by ants and termites in no-till dryland wheat. Yield was 55% higher and weeds were 50% lower in control plots compared with insect exclusion plots. Yield was higher due to the increased water infiltration and nitrogen availability.

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