Home > Animals > Arthropods
Species List | Site Map | Email | Copyright
Termite (Order Isoptera)

DESCRIPTION: L=0.2-0.4" (4-11mm). Workers are yellowish-white, and soldiers have large, yellowish-orange heads with black mandibles. Note: pictured termite is Zimbabwe. Look for the mud encasements around woody plants which the termites construct to keep them from the elements and predators.
NATURAL HISTORY: Without termites, we would have to wade through undecomposed plant material (including that in herbivore dung), and there would be little else because all the nutrients would be tied up in the undecomposed materials and unavailable for living plants (and thus animals). So, no termites, no desert ecosystem. Here's why... Plants contain large percentages of cellulose, a very strong sugar molecule that gives plants their rigid structure but is very difficult to digest. To breakdown cellulose requires a special enzyme called cellulase. Very few organisms produce cellulase, but some specialized fungi and protozoans (microscopic organisms) do produce cellulase. Termites raise some of these cellulase-producing protozoans in their guts in a mutualistic relationship where both species benefit. The termites provide housing for the protozoans and send down chewed up pieces of plant material for the protozoans to breakdown into simpler, more digestible sugars. Then the termites "share" in consuming the digestible sugars. I know you are wondering how the little protozoans get into the termites in the first place -- well here you go. Soon after hatching, the young termites feed on the protozoan-laced feces or regurgitated food from their older siblings or parents.

Termites are social insects, living in large colonies. Termites show division of labor and even have different-looking castes -- queen (lays the eggs), king (inseminates the queen), soldiers (defend the colony), and workers (that do everything else, including feeding the queen, king, and soldiers).