How Termites Shape the Serengeti
The Serengeti is one of the best examples of a fully functioning grazing ecosystem. It is home to the world’s largest body of free roaming herbivores. If you have helped classify snapshot Serengeti’s millions of camera-trap images you will know that wildebeest, zebra, topi, hartebeest, and gazelle to name a few are far more common than lion, cheetah and leopard.
Most people are aware of the millions of antelope that, along with the grasses themselves, shape this environment but they are not the only herbivores out there. There is a micro world down at ground level that is often forgotten about but which plays an enormous role in the functioning ecosystem; herbivorous insects such as grasshoppers, beetles ants and termites.
I want to take a look at termites. When most people imagine an African savannah they think of an endless vista of gently swaying grasses interspersed with the odd umbrella shaped tree and termite mounds. Termites are an integral part of the ecosystem here and it is thought that in terms of biomass they exceed the combined weight of the Serengeti’s mammals. They consume dead plant matter above ground (often during the night) then retreat underground where anaerobic bacteria in their stomach gets to work on breaking it down into a useable form, this is very similar to the process in ruminant herbivores.
Why are termites so important to savannah ecosystems? Well they serve multiple functions such as nutrient cycler’s, habitat architects and as food for other animals.
The daily activity of millions of tiny termites who bring dead vegetation into their underground homes helps to circulate nutrients with in the soil layer as well as aerating the soils themselves. If you ever get to look at a termite mound you will see that the grasses on them are often cropped short were as the surrounding area is full of long grass. This is because the grasses growing on the termite mound are particularly nutrient rich, thanks to the termites having created a nutrient hotspot and wildebeest, topi and zebras all know this and preferentially munch this grass.
Termite mounds shape the plains around them giving a relief to the flatness. Other animals such as topi, hartebeest and cheetah will use these small hills to climb onto to get a better view of their surroundings. In this flatness even a few inches of elevation could give an advantage. Many animals use termite mounds to create their own burrows. Hyena, warthog and jackal will use them as dens but the master creator is the aardvark who does most of the excavating. Snakes, lizards and mongoose readily take to old mounds too.
Termites are nutritious critters themselves and almost any omnivorous animal will make a meal of them when the chance is offered. I remember seeing about twenty large raptors walking around on a dirt road in the Kruger Park looking like a flock of chickens gobbling up termites after an eruption.
Then there are the termite specialists, aardwolf can consume around a kilogram of termites in a night. Another predator is the ant, whispering ants will raid termite mounds grabbing worker termites, carrying two or three each at a time back to their own nests.
All in all termites are a hugely important part of the Serengeti ecosystem playing a vital role in so many lives be it nutrient provider, habitat provider or as food themselves. You will probably never classify a termite on snapshot Serengeti but it’s worth remembering just how important they are.