“They are creatures of interiors. Social but reclusive, all but a few shun the light of day, avoiding even the moonlight. They live underground, in logs or sealed nests, and conduct their social lives within dark labyrinths often created and cemented together with their own dung – termites are nothing if not economical.
Numbering about 2,200 species, most of which are tropical, termites evolved from highly social cockroaches. Dependent on the digestion of woody material, termites have the remarkable ability to build a life entirely from wood. Colonies of some species thrive for years with nothing more than a chunk of wood from which to build their muscles, skin, nerves, mandibles, and minds.
Like subterranean beings the world over, termites tend to be pale and soft, save for the armored soldier castes that stand ready to venture out into the light to defend their colonies against invaders. The workers usually live retiring, sterile lives, forgoing reproduction and chewing their days away building the domestic empire of their parents. For this specialized role, they have evolved an aspect not unlike that of the modern dairy cow – their swollen bellies stretch glistening and taut over a massive gut of dark ferment.
Like the digestive systems of cows, those of termites are made possible by microbes. Several dozen species of protozoa and bacteria live within the intestine of termites and nowhere else. The microorganisms do the heavy enzymatic work of cleaving cellulose into usable sugar. The fact that special microbes must be passed from parent to offspring by anal feeding to inoculate the newborns sterile digestive tract probably explains why the ancestral wood-eating roaches begun to live in extended family groups.
Their gut microflora give termines access to a huge resource base denied to other herbivores. Much of a rainforest is pillar after pillar of inert cellulose and lignin wrapped by a thing sheath of living, growing cambium and capped by a paltry 220 pounds (100 kg) or so of leaves; less than 2 percent of the rainforest is leaf matter. The bulk of the rainforest is tons of cellulose in the form of tree trunks and limbs. That cellulose is a reservoir of solar energy converted into chemical energy as carbohydrates.
Plants construct sugars as a store of energy, but the sugars can be repackaged in various ways. Sometimes, they are stored as nutritious chain such as starch; more often, the solar energy ends up as cellulose.
Wood is composed of 60 to 70 percent cellulose and 10 to 25 percent lignin, a three-dimensionally branched polymer that stiffens cells walls, strengthens wood, and is one of natures most indigestible molecules. Ecologist John Janovy gives a good summary of the functional significance of such molecules; as he puts it, ‘The human sits on a chair and eats a French fry.” Tropical rainforest is full of materials that is suitable for chairs, but only a small fraction of the forest is as digestible as a starchy french fry.'”
Excerpt from “Nature of the Rainforest” Chapter/ Termites & tamanduas, Page 110. By Adrian Forsyth. 2008.
This excerpt comes from one Osa Conservation’s very own founding members, Adrian Forscyth.