Termites have traveled the ocean for millions of years

(ORDO NEWS) — Many families of land animals live separated by hundreds of kilometers of wide and vast oceans. The explanations for how they ended up so far apart are as varied as the animals themselves.

Recently, many animals have been traveling with humans all over the world, on our vehicles, food, and on our bodies.

Before that, hundreds of millions of years ago, the continents were connected, and animals could just walk on the ground.

But between that time and now, there seems to have been a lot of sailing and hope for the best.

A new study has shown that the dry tree termite family (Kalotermitidae) is an expert at this, having successfully crossed the ocean at least 40 times in the last 50 million years.

Termites are flying creatures, and while you might think they could make travel through the air, they’re actually quite bad at long-distance flight, so they’d be better off crossing vast expanses of water using another form of transportation.

“They’re very tolerant of the oceans,” says study lead author Aleš Buček, an evolutionary geneticist at the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology (OIST) in Japan.

“Their houses are made of wood, so they can act like tiny ships.”

As an illustration, the researchers cite the islands of Krakatoa. As a result of a devastating volcanic eruption in 1883, the entire area was deserted, but just 100 years later, numerous species of dry termites repopulated the area.

“The ability of Kalotermitidae to disperse is due to their lifestyle, as they usually nest and feed on individual pieces of wood that can float across oceans in the form of rafts,” the team writes in their paper.

“Most surviving species of Kalotermitidae are unable to forage outside their wood nesting site. Instead, they form small colonies in woody objects such as dead branches on living trees.”

To find out, the team didn’t put the termites on small boats and float them around (although that would be very nice). Instead, they studied the genetics of the dry forest termite of the Kalotermitidae family and traced how its mitochondrial DNA moves around the world.

After analyzing hundreds of dry wood termite specimens collected around the world over the past 30 years, the researchers focused on approximately 120 termite species, representing 27% of the total diversity of Kalotermitidae and representing almost all of the different genera, giving the team a lot of information to work with.

Termites have traveled the ocean for millions of years 2

“Land termites, or Kalotermitidae, are often considered primitive because they diverged from other termites quite early, around 100 million years ago, and because they form small colonies,” Buchek says. “But in fact, very little is known about this family.”

Tracing their genetic lineage, the researchers found that the earliest common ancestor lived 84 million years ago. This means that some of the early splits in the family tree may have occurred on land before the Gondwana supercontinent broke apart.

However, most of the 40 or so splits occurred less than 50 million years ago, suggesting that these small land jumpers traveled by sea. More recent human travel likely helped the termites as well.

It is important to note that the analysis also shows that we have been too hard on these little creatures and their “primitive way of life”. Kalotermitidae usually nest in small groups on a single piece of wood, which many researchers consider to be the “original” way of life for termites, before larger and more complex colony organizations later developed.

However, according to the researchers, some of the oldest lines of the genetic family fed on multiple pieces of wood, suggesting that the “one piece of tree” strategy may be a relatively new adaptation, possibly driven by competition.

“This study only highlights how little we know about termites, the diversity of their lifestyles and the extent of their social life,” says OIST ecologist Tom Bourguignon.

“As more information is accumulated about their behavior and ecology, we may be able to use this family tree to learn more about the evolution of sociality in insects and how termites have been so successful.”


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