Cannibalism and termites?

A recent study into how a termite colony handles starvation brings light to cannibalism. Earlier on it was believed that termites would turn to cannibalism to retain nitrogen. The wood they normally consume lack this vital ingredient. However, a new study shows that it might be simpler than that – they might just eat each other to keep the colony clean.

What is Cannibalism?

Cannibalism is the act of eating someone within the same species. It is common in the animal kingdom. Insects do it all the time, and many mammals too. Reasons behind this behaviour vary. Male lions will kill cubs to assert their dominance. Other animals do it in case of starvation. But what about termites?

Cannibalism and gut bacteria

Termites have a very unique gut fauna. It enables them to consume and digest cellulose, or wood. The gut bacteria are shared throughout the colony. It is inherited by worker termites feeding the young, soldiers and the king and queen. They feed them mouth to mouth in a process known as trophallaxis, and thus also give them the bacteria they carry in their stomachs.

Studies show that the gut fauna is also spread from one colony to another. When termite colonies fight the stronger contender often consumes the weaker one, thus gaining the gut bacteria from them. Termites can also acquire bacteria from other animals, from the soil and from ingesting faecal matter.

Is Cannibalism how Termites deal with Starvation?

Previous studies of termite cannibalism have focused on a few termites at a time, taken out of their colony and then presented decaying colony members. It is hard to draw any conclusions how the termites would act in a colony from these studies.

T. Chouvenc investigates in his paper “Limited survival strategy in starving subterranean termite colonies” how whole colonies react to starvation. Termites do not have a backup plan. They will consume whatever comes their way, but not have a pantry to take from if the supply runs low. When starved the colony will eat those that die first, and last to die are the king and the queen.

It appears they do not have a plan of any sorts. They will eat dead colony members to keep the colony clean. That might be all.

Recycling and protecting the colony

Even though termites may not have any intellectual reasoning behind their cannibalism, it comes with some advantages. As they eat the dead colony members they recycle the nitrogen, nothing goes to waste. This is essential to not lose any nutrients from the colony.

The cannibalistic behaviour also keeps the colony clear of diseases. If a sick individual was not removed the disease, fungal, bacterial or viral, could wreak havoc in the colony.

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