Termites travel with fungi as take-away food

October 8, 2009 by Broer Scholtens
Worker termite
Worker termite. Credit: Wikimedia

Fungi travelled to Madagascar in the intestines of termites. Fungus serves as a source of food and helps in cellulose conversion.

Termites which formed colonies on the island of Madagascar took with them fungi living with them in symbiosis. This is stated in an article by post-doc student Tânia Nobre of the Laboratory of Genetics of Wageningen Universit. The article, with co-author Duur Aanen, also from Genetics, is published this week in the British journal .

'The termite colonies on Madagascar have, so to speak, brought their own seed potatoes with them, just like farmers moving to new settlements', explains Nobre.

The female harboured fungus spores of the species Termitomyces in their intestines. Fungus and termite therefore travelled inseparably from the mainland to the island off the South African coast. This vertical transmission had an evolutionary advantage during the long distance travel and the subsequent colonization 'We date this unique combined transport to the hitherto termite-free island to 13 million years ago', says the Portuguese termite expert.

To unravel the evolutionary history of termites and fungi, the Wageningen researchers reconstructed genealogies of present day termites and fungus varieties. The termites were collected in Africa and Madagascar between 2000 and 2006. In the laboratory in Wageningen, DNA have been isolated from more than 150 different termite colonies and their symbiotic fungi.

Termites live in tropical and sub-tropical areas. A queen and a king are at the head of each colony. Countless numbers of workers and soldiers build the nest and supply the food. For some termites, the fungi are important sources of food. They also help the insects to break down hardly digestible plant materials into manageable mouthfuls.

Most of the termite species pick up fungi from their surroundings when a new colony is formed. The Wageningen research shows that all the termite colonies on originate from a single joint emigration of termites and from Africa to the island, perhaps with the wind, on driftwood or with help from birds, suggests Nobre.

Provided by Wageningen University

Explore further: Termites frighten South Florida residents

Related Stories

Termites get the vibe on what tastes good

March 20, 2007

Researchers from CSIRO and UNSW@ADFA have shown that termites can tell what sort of material their food is made of, without having to actually touch it. The findings may lead to improvements in the control of feeding termites. ...

Birds do it, bees do it; termites don't, necessarily

March 26, 2009

Scientists at North Carolina State University and three universities in Japan have shown for the first time that it is possible for certain female termite "primary queens" to reproduce both sexually and asexually during their ...

Termites eavesdrop on competitors to survive

August 26, 2009

(PhysOrg.com) -- The drywood termite, Cryptotermes secundus, eavesdrops on its more aggressive subterranean competitor, Coptotermes acinaciformis, to avoid contact with it, according to scientists from CSIRO Entomology and ...

Homebound Termites Answer 150-Year-Old Evolution Question

October 5, 2009

(PhysOrg.com) -- Staying at home may have given the very first termite youngsters the best opportunity to rule the colony when their parents were killed by their neighbors. This is according to new research supported by the ...

Recommended for you

Trade in invasive plants is blossoming

October 3, 2015

Every day, hundreds of different plant species—many of them listed as invasive—are traded online worldwide on auction platforms. This exacerbates the problem of uncontrollable biological invasions.

Ancestral background can be determined by fingerprints

September 28, 2015

A proof-of-concept study finds that it is possible to identify an individual's ancestral background based on his or her fingerprint characteristics – a discovery with significant applications for law enforcement and anthropological ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.