Termite mounds and snappy gums in savannah grassland, Gulf Country, Queensland, Australia

Savanna Grassland, Gulf Savannah and Outback

Stretching from the Great Dividing Range in the east to the Northern Territory border in the west, the rugged grasslands of Gulf Savannah tells a story of gold rushes, pioneers and wandering indigenous tribes.

Covering an area of 186,000 square kilometres, the region offers stunning open spaces and a flora and fauna unique to Australia.

This is pioneer territory, where drovers, fishing enthusiasts and fossicking treasure hunters walk shoulder to shoulder in the footsteps of Australia’s first settlers.

Termite mounds and snappy gums in savannah grassland, Gulf Country, Queensland, Australia

Termite mounds and snappy gums in savannah grassland, Gulf Country, Queensland, Australia

Take a 4WD through the arid grasslands and stunning coastal landscapes leading up to the tranquil oasis of Boodjamulla (Lawn Hill) National Park where dramatic sandstone escarpments meet clear fresh water gorges.

Another way to experience the region is on the scenic Savannahlander train route starting in Cairns and continuing through the Kuranda range and country towns out to the famous lava tubes of Undara.

Fishing enthusiasts will find their angle in the fresh water river mouths of Karumba where the Outback meets the Gulf of Carpentaria and the seasonal monsoons turn the coastal areas into a birdwatcher’s paradise.

Savanna Grassland: Gulf Country

The Gulf Country covers the southern shores of the Gulf of Carpentaria and the country surrounding the many rivers that flow into the gulf. It includes the ridged landscapes surrounding Mount Isa. This is the largest of the tropical savanna regions as we have defined them, covering around 425,000 square kilometres.

The major land use in the region is pastoralism, although most income is generated by mining with several large mines in the region including the Mount Isa Copper Mine and the McArthur River and Century Lead-Zinc mines. The fishing industry is also a major employer in the region.

Termite mounds

Northern Australia is a big country shaped by a small insect: the termite. In many places the very look of northern savannas owes much to the mounds built by colonies of this insect. North Australian savannas have one of the most diverse range of termite mounds in the world: from the enormous buttressed “cathedrals” of spinifex termites, to the remarkably aligned “magnetic” mounds and miniature cities of columns built by various Amitermes species.

Even more termite species — around three-quarters of those found in north Australia — are hidden from view, building nests within trees or underground.

As far as we can tell, most of these termite species are only found in Australia.

Despite being surrounded by termites our understanding of the ecology of the different termite species remains limited. Although many of us are warily familiar with a few timber-eating pest species, most of the termite species of northern Australia, which may feed on grass, wood or humus, are largely unstudied. However, we can provide some answers to a few key questions.

Are termites the same as ants?

Termites are only distantly related to ants. Like the ants, bees and wasps termites are social insects that live together in well-organised colonies, however, unlike the other social insects which are all closely related, termites have evolved from cockroach-like ancestors and have independently evolved the social way of living. Like the ants, the termite colony is made up of different types of insects or “castes”: worker termites, soldier termites and reproductive termites with wings.

Termite mounds and snappy gums in savannah grassland, Gulf Country, Queensland, Australia

Termite mounds and snappy gums in savannah grassland, Gulf Country, Queensland, Australia

Close-up the worker termites, which comprise the majority of termites in most colonies, generally look quite different from ants — they have pale, soft bodies and are blind.

These broad differences can be traced back to their distinct ancestries. Ants, bees and wasps all undergo a dramatic change as they grow, transforming from grub-like larvae into fully developed adults via a pupal stage. Termites, like cockroaches, instead grow gradually from juveniles, which look like small mature insects, through a series of moults into progressively more developed forms — either workers, soldiers or reproductives.

What do the different types of termites in a colony do?

If you could look inside a typical termite colony you would probably see that most termites were rather similar with small, pale bodies and no wings — these are the “worker” termites that make up the bulk of the colony. Looking a bit longer might then reveal a smaller group of termites with unusually shaped heads with large jaws, or perhaps with heads drawn out into long snouts for squirting chemicals — these are the colony’s “soldier” termites. Depending on the time of year, further examination might then reveal termites with wings, either in buds or fully developed. These are the reproductive termites, or winged “alates”. These different groups of termites are often called termite castes.

The reproductive termites develop in the way many other insects do: they grow wings, fully developed eyes, reproductive organs and a stiff, brownish skin. It is these alates which fly out from the termite colony each year to look for a mate. If they are lucky they and their mate will establish a colony and become the Queen and King termites of the new colony. The great majority of alates, however, does not survive the mating flight.

Most termites in the colony, however, never grow wings and never become sexually mature but have an inhibited, skewed development in which they acquire either strong jaws for foraging and mound building as the worker caste (or worker-like caste in some groups) — or acquire pincers or chemical weapons for defending the colony as the soldier caste.

Neither of these castes develops compound eyes, sexual organs or fully pigmented skin and as result most residents of a termite colony are blind, thin-skinned and susceptible to dehydration — relative weaklings in the largely armoured and mobile insect Class. For more information see Termite Colonies

Why do termites live in colonies?

It is thought that the social organization seen in these insects offers a number of advantages — a key one being that a group of insects working together can achieve feats that enhance their survival that would be impossible for an individual insect. The obvious example for termites is their remarkable ability to cooperatively build well-insulated, often complex nests — and networks of foraging tunnels that spread out from the nest to food sources.

How long do termite colonies live?

We do know that the worker and soldier termites only live for a few years, but as the members of a colony are being continually renewed by new eggs from the queen, a colony can outlast individual workers and soldiers. So can we age the termite mounds to get an idea of how long the colony lasts? Unfortunately, unlike corals or trees, termite mounds cannot be easily dated by looking at growth rings. This is because in many colonies the termites are continually re-working the inside of the mound. Individual mounds have been observed to survive for decades.

How do termites establish new colonies?

The analogy of termite colonies with plants is also apt when it comes to dispersal, as like many plants they reproduce by allowing “seeds” to be dispersed — in this case the seeds are the winged male and female alates which fly out from the nests in coordinated swarms and then meet up after landing to try and reproduce and found new colonies.

A termite colony will usually take a few months to produce alates from larvae and in the tropical savannas, swarms of male and female alates are often released from nests at the onset of the wet season when the moist conditions are often suitable for starting a new colony. Alates are generally poor fliers and do not travel very far  —  understandable given that male and female alates need to meet up and dispersal flights of more than a few hundred metres reduce the likelihood of this happening. It may also disadvantage a colony with significant genetic investment in adaptations to a local environment to have long dispersal flights that risk leaving that environment. For more information see Termite Colonies

All about mounds

You can see hundreds of the mounds built by termite colonies in some parts of the tropical savannas and it is easy to overlook the amazing feat of cooperation they represent. For example, consider a mature cathedral mound around 5m tall. Given it was built by insects around 5mm long this is equivalent to humans getting together and building a massive skyscraper over a kilometer high and covering many city blocks.

Having mounds means these insects can survive harsh, dry conditions in the humid micro-climates of their nests, a luxury afforded to few other animals – a factor that may contribute to termites’ remarkable abundance in the seasonally-dry tropics (see below).

But there are limits to what a termite colony can accomplish. It appears it is more difficult to sustain suitable microclimates in above-ground mounds in the dry and cool temperate regions and consequently mound-building termite species are not particularly diverse outside the tropics. However, those species that live in hardier nests hollowed out in wood or under a protective layer of soil can live in the warmer temperate regions of Australia as well as the tropics.

How many different types of termites are there?

There are more than 2800 termite species in the world. This is not many compared to the more than 11,000 different species of ants, but quite a lot compared to the 280 or so different marsupials. There are about 263 termite species found in Australia and around 160 of these can be found in northern Australia (reference 2).

Although termites all look pretty similar to our eyes, and although they are not as diverse as the ants, there is a marked difference between many of the species. For example, one of the smallest Australian species, Occultitermes occultus, has soldiers a little over 2mm long — compare this to Neotermes insularis soldiers with giant heads 7mm long and 15mm in length overall with large mandibles.

How abundant are termites?

While termites have a restricted distribution compared to the other social insects (ants, bees and wasps are found throughout tropical and temperate regions), what they lack in range they make up for in numbers. Termites can be extremely abundant in the tropical savannas and along with ants are the most abundant insects found in savanna soils . Savanna habitat covered in the large nests of spinifex termites, Nasutitermes triodiae, may support a few hundred tonnes of termite per square kilometer – far greater than the weight of cattle supported per square kilometre on similar soils.

What do termites eat?

This abundance is no doubt partly due to the fact that termites consume a widely available resource most other animals cannot exploit: the cellulose and lignin that stiffen the woody parts of plants. By virtue of symbiotic bacteria or protozoa in their gut, termites can digest the cellulose and lignin present in a wide range of wood and grass, living or dead, as well as the plant material in litter and soil – with individual species specializing on particular sources of cellulose.

Where do you find the different sorts of termites?

The termites that build mounds are concentrated in Australia’s tropical savannas while many tree- and soil-dwelling species are found in both tropical and warm temperate regions. It is likely that it is harder for termites to maintain a warm, humid environment in an above-ground mound – which may also need to have good ventilation for storing the grass the termites eat – than it is for termites to maintain stable conditions inside wood or under soil.

Relatively few species of termite are found in Australian tropical rainforests or monsoon forest patches (reference 7). This appears to have little to do with the rainforest environment itself as similar habitats in South East Asia and South America can have very high termite diversities. It may be a legacy of the fact that when rainforests were initially established in Australia few rainforest-adapted termites came with them.

 Why are there different types of mounds and nests?

Given that their nests and mounds appear to provide stable internal conditions for termites in a wide range of environments it is perhaps not surprising that many nests appear to be shaped to suit those different environments. This is seen in Amitermes laurenis: in well-drained habitats it builds small dome-shaped mounds, yet in seasonally flooded flats it constructs huge mounds aligned along a north-south axis, often hundreds of times larger. Studies on this species and A. meridionalis, which also builds oriented mounds, suggest that such mounds are an adaptation to the seasonally waterlogged conditions: the high surface-area shape oriented north-south creates a stable environment for living above the ground in flooded habitats where migrating to an underground refuge is impossible.

Other savanna mound-builders such as the spinifex termite N. triodiae also show great variation in mound type which may also be related to local environmental conditions: mounds with higher surface areas, which may facilitate better ventilation of stored grass, being found in the northern, more humid locations. However, this relationship has not been studied yet.

There is no reason why we should not expect the nests built within wood and under the soils to have a structure and shape that is also adapted to local environmental conditions. In this way termite colonies and their nests may be rather like plants, which are also stuck in one spot, that have trunks, foliage and root systems adapted to suit local conditions. For more information see Variety of termite mounds

What impact do termites have on other plants and animals?

Termites can occur in great numbers with millions of them in a single colony and they also release their flying reproductive in simultaneous flights from many colonies, so the result is often thick swarms of alates that are a food bonanza for local animals like ants, small mammals, birds, spiders, frogs and lizards.

These swarms are effectively a large aerial injection of nutrients into the ecosystem – nutrients that have been liberated from the cellulose in dead wood and grass.  This dead wood and grass is abundant in the dry season and were it not for termites, many of the nutrients locked up in this plant material would be dispersed by burning. Termite nests also house these nutrients in the bodies of the termites and in the salivary and fecal material in their walls and when the nests eventually decompose they allow  those precious nutrients to re-enter the soil to be available for plant growth.

Termite colonies are one of the few living things that can sustain this cycling process through the northern dry season. While other decomposing organisms like bacteria and fungi struggle in very dry environments, termites function with year-round life-support from the humid nest. Not only can they maintain their nutrient cycling, but through their underground activity they also assist water penetration in soils. Such insect-driven nutrient cycling may be more important in Australia than it is in other tropical savannas like those of Africa, where large herbivores are significant in nutrient cycling (reference 10). For more information see Animals that Nest in Termite Mounds and Termite Predators

Termites and People

Despite their important role in ecosystems, termites have unfortunately become victims of what marketers call the Bad Apple Syndrome: the handful of species that attack buildings and agriculture have sullied the reputation of that great termite majority that pose no such threat. That early European settlers had a more jaundiced view is hardly surprising: reports tell of Mastotermes darwiniensis completely destroying a homestead and its fences in 2-3 months.

Indigenous people of the tropical savannas, however, have long recognized termites as useful: for medicines, for dietary supplements, their carton for cooking, and mounds for camp fires. Recently however, their profile in the general community has changed in the north with large termite mounds now seen as tourist draw cards and being featured in nature documentaries. Termites are also being investigated as a possible indicator species for monitoring soil condition.

Conservation Issues

Should we go a step further and be concerned about threats to termites? Termites are not immune to global changes in the environment and there is evidence, for example, that vegetation thickening in Cape York Peninsula and the Northern Territory may be having an adverse impact on populations of “magnetic” mound-building Amitermes colonies. Dead and dying nests of these slow-dispersing insect colonies that build mounds oriented to the sun, have been observed apparently trapped beneath a slowly increasing shade from canopy cover. However even for these relatively well-known species we simply don’t know enough about their ecology yet to make definitive assessments of their conservation status.

Source: savanna.org.au
Termite mounds and snappy gums in savannah grassland, Gulf Country, Queensland, Australiahttp://i2.wp.com/plexusworld.com/wp-content/uploads/52.jpg?fit=1024%2C1024http://i2.wp.com/plexusworld.com/wp-content/uploads/52.jpg?resize=150%2C150 angelsujimeena WorldWildLife,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,
Savanna Grassland, Gulf Savannah and Outback Stretching from the Great Dividing Range in the east to the Northern Territory border in the west, the rugged grasslands of Gulf Savannah tells a story of gold rushes, pioneers and wandering indigenous tribes. Covering an area of 186,000 square kilometres, the region offers stunning...
<h2>Savanna Grassland, Gulf Savannah and Outback</h2> Stretching from the Great Dividing Range in the east to the Northern Territory border in the west, the rugged grasslands of Gulf Savannah tells a story of gold rushes, pioneers and wandering indigenous tribes. Covering an area of 186,000 square kilometres, the region offers stunning open spaces and a flora and fauna unique to Australia. This is pioneer territory, where drovers, fishing enthusiasts and fossicking treasure hunters walk shoulder to shoulder in the footsteps of Australia’s first settlers. Take a 4WD through the arid grasslands and stunning coastal landscapes leading up to the tranquil oasis of Boodjamulla (Lawn Hill) National Park where dramatic sandstone escarpments meet clear fresh water gorges. Another way to experience the region is on the scenic Savannahlander train route starting in Cairns and continuing through the Kuranda range and country towns out to the famous lava tubes of Undara. Fishing enthusiasts will find their angle in the fresh water river mouths of Karumba where the Outback meets the Gulf of Carpentaria and the seasonal monsoons turn the coastal areas into a birdwatcher’s paradise. <h2>Savanna Grassland: Gulf Country</h2> The Gulf Country covers the southern shores of the Gulf of Carpentaria and the country surrounding the many rivers that flow into the gulf. It includes the ridged landscapes surrounding Mount Isa. This is the largest of the tropical savanna regions as we have defined them, covering around 425,000 square kilometres. The major land use in the region is pastoralism, although most income is generated by mining with several large mines in the region including the Mount Isa Copper Mine and the McArthur River and Century Lead-Zinc mines. The fishing industry is also a major employer in the region. <h2 id="_ctl0__ctl0_lblPageHeadline">Termite mounds</h2> Northern Australia is a big country shaped by a small insect: the termite. In many places the very look of northern savannas owes much to the mounds built by colonies of this insect. North Australian savannas have one of the most diverse range of termite mounds in the world: from the enormous buttressed “cathedrals” of spinifex termites, to the remarkably aligned “magnetic” mounds and miniature cities of columns built by various <i>Amitermes</i> species. Even more termite species — around three-quarters of those found in north Australia — are hidden from view, building nests within trees or underground. As far as we can tell, most of these termite species are only found in Australia. Despite being surrounded by termites our understanding of the ecology of the different termite species remains limited. Although many of us are warily familiar with a few timber-eating pest species, most of the termite species of northern Australia, which may feed on grass, wood or humus, are largely unstudied. However, we can provide some answers to a few key questions. <h2><b>Are termites the same as ants?</b></h2> Termites are only distantly related to ants. Like the ants, bees and wasps termites are social insects that live together in well-organised colonies, however, unlike the other social insects which are all closely related, termites have evolved from cockroach-like ancestors and have independently evolved the social way of living. Like the ants, the termite colony is made up of different types of insects or “castes”: worker termites, soldier termites and reproductive termites with wings. Close-up the worker termites, which comprise the majority of termites in most colonies, generally look quite different from ants — they have pale, soft bodies and are blind. These broad differences can be traced back to their distinct ancestries. Ants, bees and wasps all undergo a dramatic change as they grow, transforming from grub-like larvae into fully developed adults via a pupal stage. Termites, like cockroaches, instead grow gradually from juveniles, which look like small mature insects, through a series of moults into progressively more developed forms — either workers, soldiers or reproductives. <h2>What do the different types of termites in a colony do?</h2> If you could look inside a typical termite colony you would probably see that most termites were rather similar with small, pale bodies and no wings — these are the "worker" termites that make up the bulk of the colony. Looking a bit longer might then reveal a smaller group of termites with unusually shaped heads with large jaws, or perhaps with heads drawn out into long snouts for squirting chemicals — these are the colony's "soldier" termites. Depending on the time of year, further examination might then reveal termites with wings, either in buds or fully developed. These are the reproductive termites, or winged "alates". These different groups of termites are often called termite castes. The reproductive termites develop in the way many other insects do: they grow wings, fully developed eyes, reproductive organs and a stiff, brownish skin. It is these alates which fly out from the termite colony each year to look for a mate. If they are lucky they and their mate will establish a colony and become the Queen and King termites of the new colony. The great majority of alates, however, does not survive the mating flight. Most termites in the colony, however, never grow wings and never become sexually mature but have an inhibited, skewed development in which they acquire either strong jaws for foraging and mound building as the worker caste (or worker-like caste in some groups) — or acquire pincers or chemical weapons for defending the colony as the soldier caste. Neither of these castes develops compound eyes, sexual organs or fully pigmented skin and as result most residents of a termite colony are blind, thin-skinned and susceptible to dehydration — relative weaklings in the largely armoured and mobile insect Class. For more information see Termite Colonies <h2><b>Why do termites live in colonies?</b></h2> It is thought that the social organization seen in these insects offers a number of advantages — a key one being that a group of insects working together can achieve feats that enhance their survival that would be impossible for an individual insect. The obvious example for termites is their remarkable ability to cooperatively build well-insulated, often complex nests — and networks of foraging tunnels that spread out from the nest to food sources. <h2><b>How long do termite colonies live?</b></h2> We do know that the worker and soldier termites only live for a few years, but as the members of a colony are being continually renewed by new eggs from the queen, a colony can outlast individual workers and soldiers. So can we age the termite mounds to get an idea of how long the colony lasts? Unfortunately, unlike corals or trees, termite mounds cannot be easily dated by looking at growth rings. This is because in many colonies the termites are continually re-working the inside of the mound. Individual mounds have been observed to survive for decades. <h2><b>How do termites establish new colonies?</b></h2> The analogy of termite colonies with plants is also apt when it comes to dispersal, as like many plants they reproduce by allowing “seeds” to be dispersed — in this case the seeds are the winged male and female alates which fly out from the nests in coordinated swarms and then meet up after landing to try and reproduce and found new colonies. A termite colony will usually take a few months to produce alates from larvae and in the tropical savannas, swarms of male and female alates are often released from nests at the onset of the wet season when the moist conditions are often suitable for starting a new colony. Alates are generally poor fliers and do not travel very far  —  understandable given that male and female alates need to meet up and dispersal flights of more than a few hundred metres reduce the likelihood of this happening. It may also disadvantage a colony with significant genetic investment in adaptations to a local environment to have long dispersal flights that risk leaving that environment. For more information see Termite Colonies <h2><b>All about mounds</b></h2> You can see hundreds of the mounds built by termite colonies in some parts of the tropical savannas and it is easy to overlook the amazing feat of cooperation they represent. For example, consider a mature cathedral mound around 5m tall. Given it was built by insects around 5mm long this is equivalent to humans getting together and building a massive skyscraper over a kilometer high and covering many city blocks. Having mounds means these insects can survive harsh, dry conditions in the humid micro-climates of their nests, a luxury afforded to few other animals - a factor that may contribute to termites’ remarkable abundance in the seasonally-dry tropics (see below). But there are limits to what a termite colony can accomplish. It appears it is more difficult to sustain suitable microclimates in above-ground mounds in the dry and cool temperate regions and consequently mound-building termite species are not particularly diverse outside the tropics. However, those species that live in hardier nests hollowed out in wood or under a protective layer of soil can live in the warmer temperate regions of Australia as well as the tropics. <h2><b>How many different types of termites are there?</b></h2> There are more than 2800 termite species in the world. This is not many compared to the more than 11,000 different species of ants, but quite a lot compared to the 280 or so different marsupials. There are about 263 termite species found in Australia and around 160 of these can be found in northern Australia (reference 2). Although termites all look pretty similar to our eyes, and although they are not as diverse as the ants, there is a marked difference between many of the species. For example, one of the smallest Australian species, <i>Occultitermes occultus,</i> has soldiers a little over 2mm long — compare this to <i>Neotermes insularis</i> soldiers with giant heads 7mm long and 15mm in length overall with large mandibles. <h2><b>How abundant are termites?</b></h2> While termites have a restricted distribution compared to the other social insects (ants, bees and wasps are found throughout tropical and temperate regions), what they lack in range they make up for in numbers. Termites can be extremely abundant in the tropical savannas and along with ants are the most abundant insects found in savanna soils . Savanna habitat covered in the large nests of spinifex termites, <i>Nasutitermes triodiae,</i> may support a few hundred tonnes of termite per square kilometer – far greater than the weight of cattle supported per square kilometre on similar soils. <h2><b>What do termites eat?</b></h2> This abundance is no doubt partly due to the fact that termites consume a widely available resource most other animals cannot exploit: the cellulose and lignin that stiffen the woody parts of plants. By virtue of symbiotic bacteria or protozoa in their gut, termites can digest the cellulose and lignin present in a wide range of wood and grass, living or dead, as well as the plant material in litter and soil – with individual species specializing on particular sources of cellulose. <h2><b>Where do you find the different sorts of termites?</b></h2> The termites that build mounds are concentrated in Australia’s tropical savannas while many tree- and soil-dwelling species are found in both tropical and warm temperate regions. It is likely that it is harder for termites to maintain a warm, humid environment in an above-ground mound – which may also need to have good ventilation for storing the grass the termites eat – than it is for termites to maintain stable conditions inside wood or under soil. Relatively few species of termite are found in Australian tropical rainforests or monsoon forest patches (reference 7). This appears to have little to do with the rainforest environment itself as similar habitats in South East Asia and South America can have very high termite diversities. It may be a legacy of the fact that when rainforests were initially established in Australia few rainforest-adapted termites came with them. <h2> <b>Why are there different types of mounds and nests?</b></h2> Given that their nests and mounds appear to provide stable internal conditions for termites in a wide range of environments it is perhaps not surprising that many nests appear to be shaped to suit those different environments. This is seen in <i>Amitermes laurenis:</i> in well-drained habitats it builds small dome-shaped mounds, yet in seasonally flooded flats it constructs huge mounds aligned along a north-south axis, often hundreds of times larger. Studies on this species and <i>A. meridionalis,</i> which also builds oriented mounds, suggest that such mounds are an adaptation to the seasonally waterlogged conditions: the high surface-area shape oriented north-south creates a stable environment for living above the ground in flooded habitats where migrating to an underground refuge is impossible. Other savanna mound-builders such as the spinifex termite <i>N. triodiae</i> also show great variation in mound type which may also be related to local environmental conditions: mounds with higher surface areas, which may facilitate better ventilation of stored grass, being found in the northern, more humid locations. However, this relationship has not been studied yet. There is no reason why we should not expect the nests built within wood and under the soils to have a structure and shape that is also adapted to local environmental conditions. In this way termite colonies and their nests may be rather like plants, which are also stuck in one spot, that have trunks, foliage and root systems adapted to suit local conditions. For more information see Variety of termite mounds <h3><b>What impact do termites have on other plants and animals?</b></h3> Termites can occur in great numbers with millions of them in a single colony and they also release their flying reproductive in simultaneous flights from many colonies, so the result is often thick swarms of alates that are a food bonanza for local animals like ants, small mammals, birds, spiders, frogs and lizards. These swarms are effectively a large aerial injection of nutrients into the ecosystem – nutrients that have been liberated from the cellulose in dead wood and grass.  This dead wood and grass is abundant in the dry season and were it not for termites, many of the nutrients locked up in this plant material would be dispersed by burning. Termite nests also house these nutrients in the bodies of the termites and in the salivary and fecal material in their walls and when the nests eventually decompose they allow  those precious nutrients to re-enter the soil to be available for plant growth. Termite colonies are one of the few living things that can sustain this cycling process through the northern dry season. While other decomposing organisms like bacteria and fungi struggle in very dry environments, termites function with year-round life-support from the humid nest. Not only can they maintain their nutrient cycling, but through their underground activity they also assist water penetration in soils. Such insect-driven nutrient cycling may be more important in Australia than it is in other tropical savannas like those of Africa, where large herbivores are significant in nutrient cycling (reference 10). For more information see Animals that Nest in Termite Mounds and Termite Predators <h3><b>Termites and People</b></h3> Despite their important role in ecosystems, termites have unfortunately become victims of what marketers call the Bad Apple Syndrome: the handful of species that attack buildings and agriculture have sullied the reputation of that great termite majority that pose no such threat. That early European settlers had a more jaundiced view is hardly surprising: reports tell of <i>Mastotermes darwiniensis</i> completely destroying a homestead and its fences in 2-3 months. Indigenous people of the tropical savannas, however, have long recognized termites as useful: for medicines, for dietary supplements, their carton for cooking, and mounds for camp fires. Recently however, their profile in the general community has changed in the north with large termite mounds now seen as tourist draw cards and being featured in nature documentaries. Termites are also being investigated as a possible indicator species for monitoring soil condition. <h3><b>Conservation Issues</b></h3> Should we go a step further and be concerned about threats to termites? Termites are not immune to global changes in the environment and there is evidence, for example, that vegetation thickening in Cape York Peninsula and the Northern Territory may be having an adverse impact on populations of “magnetic” mound-building <i>Amitermes</i> colonies. Dead and dying nests of these slow-dispersing insect colonies that build mounds oriented to the sun, have been observed apparently trapped beneath a slowly increasing shade from canopy cover. However even for these relatively well-known species we simply don’t know enough about their ecology yet to make definitive assessments of their conservation status. <address>Source: savanna.org.au</address>