Systematics and biology of termites and about their phoretic associations

von wirthstef

They live in eusocial communities, but are not closer related to ants or bees. Termites belong to the cockroaches.

 

Queen, king and castes

 

Usually one queen and one king are reproductive and act as heads of the nest. The different work fields of a nest are executed by infertile specimens, which can show very different and specialized body shapes. The diversity of different castes is in phylogenetically „primitive“ taxa lower than in „higher developed“ termite groups.

 

As example specimens of a deadwood species from Italy

 

This species was found in deadwood of a small forest in Portici (Gulf of Naples, Italy) and might represent the taxon Kalotermitidae. This taxon branches off rather basically  in the systematic tree of termites. Nest work can be taken over by nymphs of later alates.

 

deadwood-termites from Italy, Youtube: copyrights Stefan F. Wirth, April 2020

 

 

How is wood-eating possible?

 

Wood eating termites bear bacteria and protozoans  in their digestive tracts, which perform the digestion of cellulose.

 

Evolution, sister taxon and endosymbionts

 

Termites (Isoptera) evolved within the cockroaches (Blattodea). According to modern systematics (e.g.  Beccaloni & Eccleton, 2011) the cockroach taxon Cryptocercidae is the sister-clade of the termites. But there are controversial theories existing.

According to such reconstructions, the last common ancestor of cockroach taxon Cryptocercidae and termites possessed bacterial and protozoan endosymbionts. Molecular data proved that endosymbionts in both groups are closely related to each other. The last common ancestor of both groups showed in case of their indeed sister-group-relation a tendency towards social communities. Cryptocercidae live temporarily in bigger groups together with their offspring.

 

Subsocial lifestyle in Cryptocercidae

 

Cockroaches of the Cryptocercidae as putative sister taxon of termites live inside galleries in deadwood and feed on wood fibres. At least one parent and its nymphs live subsocially inside their galleries. Cryptocercidae adults and nymphs groom each other, and parents feed juveniles with wood fragments afer these had passed their anus openings.

 

According to recent systematic/ phylogenetic reconstructions the Kalotermitidae belong to the basically branching termite groups. Such basic groups of termites still show a low diversity of castes only.

 

Associates, commensalism and phoresy

 

Like ants or bees, termites share their nests regularly with associates of other groups of animals,

often mites and nematodes. Some of these organisms use termites as carriers for a transport over bigger distances. details of such associations between insects and mites are not well studied yet. But carrier-passenger-situations with transfer („taxi“-) purposes are called phoresy. Phoresy ist mostly considered as a neutral association between different organisms and is thus interpreted as commensalism. Commensalism is differed from strategies like parasiticm or symbiosis and requires that two organisms in association do not harm or noticeably benefit each other. The term commensalism often includes associations, in which the true context for both organism partners is simply not understood yet.

 

Not yet mites of the Gamasina (Parasitiformes) were reared in greater numbers out of my Italian termite substrate. They might represent phoretic cohabitants of those termites. Other mite species of different mite groups (Parasitiformes and Acariformes) were only found in smaller numbers and died out too quickly for collections and determinations under my culture conditions, unfortunately already before the beginning of my shootings. seemingly microclimatic conditions had become too unfavorable.

 

Copyrights Stefan F. Wirth, Berlin 2019 – 2020, all rights reserved