Aimée Classen

Most people think termites are a nuisance that consume wood in homes and businesses. But those termites represent less than 4% of all termite species worldwide.

Termites are critical in natural ecosystems — especially in the tropics — because they help recycle dead wood from trees. Without such decayers, the world would be piled high with dead plants and animals.

But these energetic wood-consuming insects could soon be moving toward the North Pole and South Pole as global temperatures warm from climate change, new research indicates.

In a new international study led by the University of Miami and including a University of Michigan co-author, researchers learned that termites are pivotal when it comes to breaking down wood, contributing to Earth’s carbon cycle. They also learned that termites are very sensitive to temperature and rainfall, so as temperatures heat up, the insect’s role in wood decay will likely expand beyond the tropics.

“With temperatures warming, the impact of termites on the planet could be huge,” said study leader Amy Zanne, a University of Miami biology professor.

University of Michigan biologist Aimée Classen is a co-author of the study published online Thursday in the journal Science. She led a team that investigated a field site in Vermont.
“We know that species are moving due to warming and changes in rainfall, but we know less of what those movements might mean for ecosystems and carbon feedbacks,” said Classen, a professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and director of the University of Michigan Biological Station.

“This study is one of the first that connects the dots among a species’ movement, changes in an ecosystem process, and climate change to show that the movement of an organism as small as a termite can cascade to impact the rate that wood — a global carbon stock — is decomposed.”

Classen said that being part of a global science team was rewarding and yielded lots of valuable data. “Being part of a global network of scientists all working on the same questions enables our group to understand local patterns as well as global patterns,” she said. “This bottom-up approach to tackling scientific questions packs a powerful punch. For a small investment in time or money from any one group, we gain a large understanding of what the future world may look like.”

Read full Michigan News press release