Two of the world’s most destructive species of termites have swarmed at the same time, creating a hybrid that scientists fear could lead to a wave of destruction.
The combination of genes between the Asian and Formosan subterranean termites in Florida has resulted in highly vigorous hybridised colonies that can develop twice as fast as the two parental species, they say.
The Asian and Formosan termites already cause $40 billion in damage between them. Their hybrid offspring could increase that bill many times over.
A new paper published in the journal PLOS ONE by a team of University of Florida researchers, says that, while both of the invasive species have been spread round the world by human activity, their distributions overlap in only three narrow areas – Florida being one.
The authors say that, due to climate change, the dispersal flight seasons of both species overlapped for the first time on record in 2013 and 2014, with Asian termites appearing to actually prefer mating with Formosan females than their own species.
The authors warn that climate change could spread the termites’ range even further.
“With a subtropical climate and strong human activity, the continuous spread of exotic termites in south Florida is inevitable,” the paper says.
“Climate change can directly shift the distribution range and the timing of reproduction of species because of alterations of environmental conditions…The unusually warm 2013 and 2014 winters (5th and 10th warmest winter on record) with successive cold fronts in the region may have allowed for a wide overlap of the termite species dispersal flight seasons.”
The researchers are yet to determine whether the hybrid termites are fertile but, whether they are or not, they are destined to stay around for a long time.
“Because a termite colony can live up to 20 years with millions of individuals, “the damaging potential of a hybrid colony remains a serious threat to homeowners, even if the hybrid colony does not produce fertile winged termites,” lead author Nan-Yao Su says.
Bill Condie is a science journalist based in Adelaide, Australia.
Read science facts, not fiction...
There’s never been a more important time to explain the facts, cherish evidence-based knowledge and to showcase the latest scientific, technological and engineering breakthroughs. Cosmos is published by The Royal Institution of Australia, a charity dedicated to connecting people with the world of science. Financial contributions, however big or small, help us provide access to trusted science information at a time when the world needs it most. Please support us by making a donation or purchasing a subscription today.