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

“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

Last Updated November 3, 2020