A fascinating talk on the importance of termites to the ecology of our rainforests kept a full house enthralled at our October monthly meeting, writes Robert Edmondson
David Jones, a scientist at the Natural History Museum, showed photos of the aerial walkways used to study the fauna of the forest canopy in Borneo and elsewhere. Casually he mentioned the necessity of protective gloves because of the presence of venomous snakes, giant centipedes and spiders among the leaf litter!
His speciality is termites, on which he is a world authority (possibly number 6!). These tropical insects evolved from cockroaches and feed on plant material, wood and soil. He described, with illustrations, their diversity, their caste system (soldiers, workers and a grossly enlarged egg-laying queen), the architecture of their mounds (designed with air conditioning to prevent overheating) and the ‘arms race’ with their main foes – the ants.
He then summarised the ecology of tropical forests. Insects and other invertebrates comprise over 95% of both the biomass and the biodiversity, with the ants and termites making up nearly 50% of each. The colourful animals and birds that we love are of comparatively little importance. Three processes maintain a tropical forest:
- Predation – with ants as key players.
- Decay and recycling of plants – where termites are prominent.
- Pollination, usually by bees or other insects.
He explained how both soil fertility and biodiversity decline if the forest is partly cleared for timber or completely cleared for palm oil or soybean.
His talk, laced with humour and anecdote, was both entertaining and informative and reminded us of the value of the so-called lower forms of life – the insects.