The below-ground mounds of Odontotermes termites strongly influence savanna productivity via ordered spatial distribution and modification of soil composition.

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"The king of the savanna appears to be the termite, say ecologists who've found that these humble creatures contribute mightily to grassland productivity in central Kenya via a network of uniformly distributed colonies. Termite mounds greatly enhance plant and animal activity at the local level, while their even distribution over a larger area maximizes ecosystem-wide productivity

"The mechanism through which termite activity is transformed into far-reaching effects on the ecosystem is a complex one. Pringle and Palmer suspect termites import coarse particles into the otherwise fine soil in the vicinity of their mounds. These coarser particles promote water infiltration of the soil, even as they discourage disruptive shrinking and swelling of topsoil in response to precipitation or drought.

"The mounds also show elevated levels of nutrients such as phosphorus and nitrogen. All this beneficial soil alteration appears to directly and indirectly mold ecosystem services far beyond the immediate vicinity of the mound." (EurekAlert! 2010)


"The findings also have important implications for conservation, Palmer says.

"'As we think restoring degraded ecosystems, as we think about restoring coral reefs, or restoring plant communities, this over-dispersed pattern is teaching us something,' he says. 'It's saying we might want to think about doing our coral restoration or plant restoration in a way that takes advantage of this ecosystem productivity enhancing phenomenon.'" (ScienceDaily 2010)

For more information about how termite mounds influence the African savanna and how researchers are studying these creatures, check out these resources from HHMI BioInteractive:

Video: "Analyzing Patterns in the Savanna Landscape"

Animation: "Termite Activity Enhances Ecosystem Productivity and Stability"

Poster: "Fungus-Cultivating Termites of the African Savanna — Ecosystem Engineers"

Video content © 2016 Howard Hughes Medical Institute Edit Summary


"The finding that regular spatial patterns can emerge in nature from local interactions between organisms has prompted a search for the ecological importance of these patterns. Theoretical models have predicted that patterning may have positive emergent effects on fundamental ecosystem functions, such as productivity. We provide empirical support for this prediction. In dryland ecosystems, termite mounds are often hotspots of plant growth (primary productivity). Using detailed observations and manipulative experiments in an African savanna, we show that these mounds are also local hotspots of animal abundance (secondary and tertiary productivity): insect abundance and biomass decreased with distance from the nearest termite mound, as did the abundance, biomass, and reproductive output of insect-eating predators. Null-model analyses indicated that at the landscape scale, the evenly spaced distribution of termite mounds produced dramatically greater abundance, biomass, and reproductive output of consumers across trophic levels than would be obtained in landscapes with randomly distributed mounds. These emergent properties of spatial pattern arose because the average distance from an arbitrarily chosen point to the nearest feature in a landscape is minimized in landscapes where the features are hyper-dispersed (i.e., uniformly spaced). This suggests that the linkage between patterning and ecosystem functioning will be common to systems spanning the range of human management intensities. The centrality of spatial pattern to system-wide biomass accumulation underscores the need to conserve pattern-generating organisms and mechanisms, and to incorporate landscape patterning in efforts to restore degraded habitats and maximize the delivery of ecosystem services." (Pringle et al. 2010:e1000377)

Journal article
When edges meet: interacting edge effects in an African savannaJournal of EcologyMarch 18, 2011
Lauren McGeoch Porensky

Lowly termite, not the lion or elephant, may be the star of Africa's savanna

Star of Africa's savanna ecosystems may be the lowly termite: regularly spaced termite mounds are key to maintaining ecological function

Journal article
Spatial pattern enhances ecosystem functioning in an African savanna

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