Termites are still closely related to cockroaches, although diverging on the evolutionary tree about 150 million years ago. Growing on a separate branch, termites are used to living in groups in the nest.
Today, termites divide into many diverse species, when there are termite nests containing millions of individuals, digging complex tunnels underground. Meanwhile, most termites that we know are drywood termites, living in nests with about 5,000 individuals, living mainly in wood.
Realizing this is a species with a long lifespan, scientists want to find out their origin, and learn about how termites roamed the lands to be able to prosper as they are today.
Working with experts from around the world, a team from the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology (OIST) has successfully mapped out the natural history of the drywood termite species, one of the largest termite families in the world. . They discovered the voyages termites took to get to the biodiversity it is today.
In a new study published in the journal Molecular Biology and Evolution, scientists show the origin of termites and how they spread globally. At the same time, research shows that in the early modern centuries, several species of termites traveled with humans to distant lands.
“Drywood termites with the scientific name Kalotermitidae are often thought to be primitive species, when they separated from the termite family tree quite early about 100 million years ago, part of the reason also comes from the relatively limited size of termites. processing”, said Professor Aleš Buček, also the lead author of the study. “However, we know very little about them“.
According to Professor Aleš Buček, previous studies have obtained limited data because they focused on only one genus, which is termites that are often present in the house. To obtain a more diverse dataset, the team from OIST has collected hundreds of termite samples from around the world over the past three decades.
The team selected 120 species of termites, some of which were taken at different locations but still had the same species. The data obtained represent more than 25% of the Kalotermitidae species, showing the diversity of the tiny creatures.
After comparing the gene sequences, the researchers successfully built a family tree of the drywood termites. They found that drywood termites were more experienced at navigation than any other species in their family. They have crossed the ocean at least 40 times in the last 50 million years, having traveled from South America to Africa. That’s why drywood termites have such a high species diversity.
“They are very good at crossing the sea”, said Professor Buček. “Their house is made of wood, so it can also be used as a boat“.
Scientists found that the majority of termite genera are of South American origin, and dispersed from here to all over the land. It takes millions of years for a species to fork in evolution to become many other species. The study also shows that the evolutionary path of termites is largely influenced by human activity, as in recent centuries they have hitchhiked on transcontinental voyages.
Furthermore, the study shakes up the popular notion that drywood termites lead a primitive way of life. Despite being one of the oldest termites, drywood termites do not “eat hair in the hole”. In fact, they can form nests spanning a large area, connected between trees by a complex system of tunnels.
“Research shows not only how little we know about termites, the variety of ways they live, as well as the social size of termite colonies.”, Professor Tom Bourguignon, one of the senior scholars who contributed to drafting the study.
“As we gain more and more information regarding the behavior and ecology of termites, we will be able to utilize the newly built family tree to understand more about insect evolution and understand Why is it so successful?“.