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Termites’ Engineering Skills Help Protect Tropical Rainforests From Drought

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termite construction rainforest drought

Termites scamper about on the rainforest floor in Borneo. (Credit: corlaffra/shutterstock)

Termites are minuscule scourges to homeowners, but the wood-chomping critters are also masterful engineers. And now an international team of researchers has found that these construction skills actually help protect tropical rainforests from drought. The insects have an outsized impact on forest soils by helping control moisture in the dirt, a critical component to forest health that climate change and human impacts increasingly threaten. The results also suggest termites could buffer tropical rainforests from drought in the future.

“We previously thought termites were important in tropical rainforests, but we didn’t know how important, particularly during drought,” said Louise Ashton, an ecologist at the University of Hong Kong, who led the new work.

Bad Rap

Termites abound in tropical rainforests. And while Ashton and her colleagues suspected the insects impact the typically lush ecosystems, scientific circles give the bugs little attention (with the notable of exception of prominent biologist E.O. Wilson who has been making the case for the importance of insects for decades). Still, most research on termites revolves around the evolution of their social behavior or pest management. That’s beginning to change, but the bugs’ reputation means it’s taken years to get here. The new research published today in the journal Science took about a decade to come to fruition.

Ten years ago, Theo Evans, an evolutionary biologist and ecologist at the University of Western Australia in Perth and co-author of the new research, met up with Paul Eggleton, an entomologist with England’s Natural History Museum in London, at a conference. Over a few beers, the duo decided they’d run some experiments to back up rumors that termites impact ecosystems murmuring through their research community.

“The beer may have given us more confidence than was realistic,” recalls Evans, “because it took us years to get the collaborators and funding to run the experiment!”

Turning Tide

The delay turned out to be serendipitous. The team set up their experiment in the rainforests of Borneo at the start of the 2015 El Nino drought. They set out toilet paper—a favorite termite food—treated with a poison that only affected the termites and not any of the areas’ other insects. Over the next few years, the team monitored the forests responses in the plots with fewer termites compared to plots where the termite population remained abundant.

During the drought, termite activity doubled, the team found. And the termites’ hustle and bustle increased the soil moisture. The discovery means “termites were manipulating the water in the soil,” Evans said, which buffered the effects of drought.  “This is the first time this has been discovered.”

The termites’ manipulation of soil moisture, which they do by transporting water using special water-sacs in their bodies, also improved seedling survival in the rainforests during the drought.

“We tend to think of termites only as pests, but they are also helping the maintenance of healthy ecosystems during periods of environmental stress,” Ashton said. Those stresses include drought but also other human impacts such as logging and conversion to agriculture.

“Droughts are predicted to become more common in rainforests due to climate change,”  Evans added. “Logging, even selective logging (for valuable trees only) … reduces termite diversity and abundance, so logged rainforests may be more vulnerable to climate change.”

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Ecology

Globe Climate: Canada’s resource reckoning is coming

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Good afternoon, and welcome to Globe Climate, a newsletter about climate change, environment and resources in Canada.

This afternoon, the Alberta government announced that it is restoring a coal mining policy it revoked last spring. At the time, the move provoked a widespread public backlash detailed by The Globe. The original decision, which opened up more than 1.4 million hectares to exploration, was made without public consultation. Premier Jason Kenney previously defended the changes.

Lots more on coal and Canada’s resources industry in this week’s newsletter edition.

Now, let’s catch you up on other news.

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Ecology

‘Incredibly destructive’: Canada’s Prairies to see devastating impact of climate change

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As the climate continues to warm at an alarming rate, experts warn if dramatic steps to mitigate global warming are not taken, the effects in Canada’s Prairie region will be devastating to the country’s agriculture sector.

According to Environment and Climate Change Canada, the country is warming, on average, about double the global rate.

Scientists with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in the U.S. recently found 2020 was earth’s second-hottest year on record, with the average land and ocean surface temperature across the globe at 0.98 of a degree C above the 20th-century average.

However, the agency found the northern hemisphere saw its hottest year on record, at 1.28 degrees C above the average.

“(In Canada) we are looking at about 6.4C degrees of warming this century, which isn’t much less than one degree per decade, which is just a terrifying rate of warming,” Darrin Qualman, the director of climate crisis policy and action at the National Farmer’s Union said.

Qualman said there is “massive change coming” to Canada’s Prairies, which will be “incredibly destructive.”

“It’s not going too far to say that if we made that happen, parts of the Prairies wouldn’t be farmable anymore,” he said.

According to the federal government, in 2018 Canada’s agriculture and agri-food system generated $143 billion, accounting for 7.4 per cent of the country’s GDP.

The sector employed 2.3 million people in 2018. The majority of the 64.2 million hectares of farmland in Canada is concentrated in the Prairies and in southern Ontario.

The effects of climate change are already being felt on the ground in the Prairies, Qualman said, adding that the NFU has already heard from farmers complaining of “challenging weather.”

“People are sharing pictures of flattened crops and buildings, et cetera, that have been damaged,” he said. “And we’re still at the beginning of this.”

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Ecology

Insect-based dog food aims to cut your pet’s carbon pawprint

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Meat has an enormous carbon footprint, with livestock liable for about 15 per cent of worldwide emissions, as we have beforehand mentioned on this e-newsletter. That is prompted specialists to suggest consuming much less meat for sustainability (and well being) causes.

However what about your pet? One research discovered that the methane and nitrous oxide emissions generated by canine and cat meals within the U.S. alone had been equal to about 64 million tonnes of CO2, or roughly the quantity produced by 13.6 million automobiles. And it might be getting worse, with a development towards feeding pets “human-grade” meat.

That is prompted some pet meals makers to look to lower-carbon protein sources — together with bugs.

Research present that producing insect-based meals requires far much less feed, land and water and generates far fewer greenhouse fuel emissions per kilogram than meats comparable to beef, pork or rooster.

That is one of many causes increasingly more pet meals containing insect protein are hitting the market. Purina, a model owned by multinational Nestlé, launched a line of canine and cat meals containing black soldier fly larvae in Switzerland in November.

In Canada, Montreal-based Wilder Harrier began promoting canine treats made with cricket protein in 2015 and pet food made with black soldier fly larvae in 2019. It plans to broaden to launch a line of insect-based cat treats later this yr and cat meals in 2022 due to “a ton of demand,” mentioned firm co-founder Philippe Poirier.

Wilder Harrier initially labored with animal nutritionists on insect-based merchandise to unravel a unique downside — specifically, the founders’ canines had allergy symptoms to frequent meats utilized in canine meals. Poirier mentioned now about half its prospects hunt down the product due to their pets’ allergy symptoms and about half for environmental causes.

Dr. Cailin Heinze, a U.S.-based veterinary nutritionist licensed by the American School of Veterinary Vitamin, has written concerning the environmental influence of pet meals. She mentioned we’re typically “not as involved as we probably ought to [be]” concerning the environmental footprint of pets.

Alternatively, she famous that the longer-term influence of newer diets, comparable to vegan meals and people containing bugs, hasn’t been nicely examined in comparison with conventional pet meals.

Maria Cattai de Godoy, an assistant professor of animal sciences on the College of Illinois who research novel proteins for pet meals (together with bugs, yeast and plant-based substances), mentioned such substances are rigorously examined to find out their security and diet earlier than being added to pet meals. 

“This can be a very extremely regulated trade,” she mentioned, however admitted it is also evolving.

Relating to bugs, she mentioned constructive information “reveals promise in direction of utilizing them increasingly more in pet meals.” Insect-based proteins have additionally earned the endorsement of the British Veterinary Affiliation, which says some insect-based meals could also be higher for pets than prime steak.

However Godoy famous that there isn’t any one-size-fits-all resolution, and pet homeowners ought to take into consideration the wants of their very own particular person pet and analysis whether or not a specific weight loss plan can be appropriate.

She mentioned that other than the kind of protein, issues like packaging and manufacturing strategies may also make a distinction. For instance, utilizing meat byproducts that may in any other case turn into waste would not drive elevated meat manufacturing the identical approach as utilizing human-grade meat.

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