Not many people like termites, as they can destroy houses and chew up your wooden furniture. Pests can be terrible and we agree on that.
However, termites may also be important to ecosystems in semi-arid lands such as grasslands and savannas where they can help plants resist climate change, according to a study.
A warmer climate is causing many grasslands to become even drier, which is a problem since drier lands are especially sensitive to weather. As global warming is expected to intensify droughts in the coming years, grasslands and savannas will face increased threats of desertification.
Scientists are studying the transition of semi-arid areas driven by climate change, some of which predict that northeastern Brazil, which is currently covered by dry shrub vegetation, could soon turn into a desert landscape.
This is where those pesky termites come into the picture.
In a recent study published in the journal Science, Princeton University researchers report that in drylands termite mounds provide oases for the vegetation that grows around the mounds. These raised mounds could possibly help plants become more resistant to climate change, experts say.
Termites deftly build porous intricate nests out of the ground. These structures allow rainwater to seep into and penetrate deep underground. Internal pores also cause less evaporation than on the soil surface.
"Rain is the same everywhere, but since termites allow water to penetrate better into the soil, plants grow on or near mounds as if there is more rain," said Corina Tarnita, one of the authors behind research being an assistant professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at Princeton.
During especially arid periods when dry areas are hit by heat waves and face water shortages, most vegetation dries up. However, plants that grow near termite mounds do not. Thanks to the moisture preserved by these high-rise nests, adjacent plants can remain robust.
"Even when you see desertification starting to occur between the mounds, the vegetation on or around the mounds is working so well that it will continue to re-seed the environment," Tarnita said.
"Vegetation in and around termite mounds persists longer and decreases more slowly," he explained. "Even when you get to such harsh conditions where the vegetation disappears from the mounds, the re-vegetation is even easier. As long as the mounds are there, the ecosystem has a better chance of recovering."
In our eyes, termites can be troublesome, but ecologically they could be very beneficial to vegetation by helping to protect some plants against climate change.