How do we Archive Superorganisms in Natural History Collections?

Archiving Superorganisms Termite Collections: Past, Present and Future

Termites (Blattodea: Termitoidae) live in colonies, and have complex social systems comprising of kings, queens, nymphs, soldiers and workers. They build elaborate nests, which provide vital functions for the success of the colony, including  reproduction, nourishment, protection and dispersal. It is for this reason that the termite colony has become analogous with the idea of it being a multicellular individual: a superorganism.

Ecologically, termites are the primary invertebrate decomposers of dead plant material in tropical and subtropical terrestrial ecosystems.  Recent research in the Soil Biodiversity Group has shown that termites may become even more important in a drying world, as they mitigate the ecological impacts of drought in tropical rainforests. Therefore, it is crucial to document and maintain excellent collections of termites, both biotic and abiotic elements.

In this talk, I presented data on the NHM termite collection and its complexities. As soft bodied individuals, termites must be stored in temperature controlled spirit collections. Termite mounds are dried and kept in temperature controlled cabinets and the nest collections are really useful when talking about termites to the general public. It is vital to have both of these components in a collection, as termite taxonomy uses morphological features of the soldier termite for identification of species, as well as the mound structure and geographical location.

In this talk, I evaluated:
(I) Past Collections: How and where did it begin?
(II) Existing collections: What shape are they in now?
(III) Future collections: How to maintain specimens and provide alternatives for the coming generations?

You can download a .pdf of my talk here: Archiving Superorganisms Termite Collections: Past, Present and Future

Dreams do Come True: Tropical Ecology Research in Borneo!

When I was leaving Maliau Basin in 2015 after completing the data collection for my masters project, I did not think I would have the opportunity to return to Borneo any time soon… I was wrong!

Between September – December 2016 I went back to the beautiful pristine rainforests surrounding Maliau Basin in Borneo, this time, as an ecological field research assistant with the Natural History Museum, I worked with the Termite Ant Research Team which includes Paul EggletonLouise Ashton, in collaboration with the University of Liverpool’s Kate Parr, Hannah Griffiths and Alice Walker.

I spent half my time in the rainforest collecting data from fieldwork including:

  1. Termite transects
  2. Leaf litter transects/Winkler Bag sampling
  3. Ant bait card monitoring
  4. Predation study on fake grublets
  5. Wood occupancy surveys
  6. Hand collecting 2,000 individual ants for molecular gut content analysis
  7. Ant resource removal experiment

The other half of my time was spent in the Laboratory in the Institute of Tropical Biology and Conservation (ITBC) at the University of Malaysia, Sabah (UMS) in Kota Kinabalu working in the Natural Products Chemistry laboratory where I extracted chemicals from soil and seedling samples. I also helped the UMS Friends of Borneensis Outreach Initiative to design a field course for Malaysian School Students in 2017.

Our resource removal experiment revealed that Ants are the major agents of resource removal from tropical rainforests and was published recently in the Journal of Animal Ecology.

Welcome to our Mound, We Hope you Enjoy your Stay!

Inquiline species are the “lodgers” of the zoological world. They take advantage of the nests that other species make and continue to live commensally with them. This could be considered analogous to parasites creating their homes within the multicellular hosts.

Think of the individuals that make up termite colonies, they consist of soldiers, workers, and reproductive castes and termite colonies are often referred to as “super organisms”. They are unable to survive on their own when outside of the colony and are entirely dependent on each other for movement and for nourishment via pheromone communication.

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Block of flats

However there is a distinct difference between inquiline species and parasites, the latter causes damage to the host, whereas the “lodgers” just mischievously take over a section of the nest, creating little destruction to the well-being of the termite colony.

Mounds and nests are perfect examples of architectural excellence in the natural world, who wouldn’t want to live in the grand palace of the termites? In some species there are fungus chambers (a constantly topped up termite pantry) and the entire construction provides stable shelter and defence against predators for the rest of the inhabitants. Most importantly there is adequate climate control which keeps homeostasis in the mound, highly attractive attributes for insects who require stable environmental conditions, “when can we move in?” I hear you buzzing.

Unlike lodgers, inquiline species do not pay rent. My favourite example has to be that of the world’s largest bee, Chalicodoma pluto, also known famously as Wallace’s bee. This species was first discovered in 1859 by Alfred Russell Wallace in the Northern Moluccas in Indonesia. The type specimen was described by Smith in 1861. For a long time the species was considered extinct, as it had not been seen at all both by Indonesian locals and by research scientists. How can they miss such a huge bee? For a start, it is a beastly species compared tothe common honey bee, Apis melifera (Fig.1.) it should be easy to spot! Its sheer size also suggests that it must be making enough racket whilst in flight to make it difficult for their presence to go unnoticed…

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Fig.1. Dorsal view of a common honey bee worker, Apis melifera (Left) compared to Chalicodoma pluto (Right). Photograph by J.W. Porter from Messer (1984).

The humble hymenopteran giantwas re-discovered nesting commensally with the arboreal species Microcerotermes amboinensis on three Indonesian islands in 1981 by Adam Catton Messer. It appeared that the C. pluto species were restricted to living in these termite nests and were not discovered in any other habitat. They do this by making tunnels large enough for them to enter the nest and cells to lay their eggs and store their food and frass, kicking the termites out of that section. Another bizarre thing about this species is that the morphology and adaptations of the mandibles were quite unlike bees, but more like stag-beetle mandibles, ideal for collecting resin from dipterocarp trees and pollen from flowering plants to feed their larvae back in the termite nest.

Another fascinating example of these inquiline intruders found in termite nests are the beetle larvae of Pyrearinus termitilluminans (Elateridae).The photograph in Fig.2 shows that the lights are on and someone is at home! It is not just the termites though… In Brazil the old nests of Cornitermes cumulansare the first choice habitat for these larvae as they excavate tunnels from the central to the outer layer of the mounds and poke their green luminous prothoraxes outside. The collective bioluminescence of the larvae creates a biological block of flats with the lights shining through the windows of the mound, which attract flying preys such as termite alates or formicid ants. The adult beetles only lay their eggs in nests that are greater or equal to one meter in height which increases the success rate of having a nice meal.

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Fig.2. Parque Nacional das Emas, Goiás, Brazil, luminous termite nest Photograph by S. A. Vanin from Costa & Vanin (2010)

In some cases it is not even one single species but several species at a time that coexist successfully in the nests of termites. Are the termites troubled about sharing their nest with the world’s largest bee? Do they mind if those larvae enjoy some ambient lights in the evenings?

The winner of the Invertebrates category for the Natural History Museum Wildlife Photographer of the year 2014 was Ary Bassous from Brazil. His photograph “Night of the deadly lights” also captured the termite mounds on the savannah of Emas National Park, central Brazil. He described the bioluminescence as “eerie”, but I think it shows how full of energy and life a termite mound can be. The image is a beautiful triumph after attempting to photograph it for nearly 10 years!

Imagine having a completely different species living in your home, like a gorilla living in your attic, what would you do?Inquiline species are an exciting area of entomology that would benefit from more research, both for termite and ant colonies. Who knows what other insect-lodger populations exist out there!

Further Reading:

Bignell, D.E., Roisin, Y., Lo, N., 2011. Biology of Termites: A Modern Synthesis. Springer Publishing. DOI: 10.1007/978-90-481-3977-4

Costa, C. & Vanin, S.A., 2010. Coleoptera Larval Fauna Associated with Termite Nests (Isoptera) with Emphasis on the “Bioluminescent Termite Nests” from Central Brazil”. Psyche, Journal of Entomology. Article ID 723947 doi:10.1155/2010/723947

Messer, C.A., 1984. Chalicoma pluto: The World’s Largest Bee Rediscovered Living Communally in Termite Nests (Hymenoptera: Megachilidae). Journal of the Kansas Entomological Soc. Vol. 57, No.1, PP 165 – 168

In Sulawesi, as an Entomologist!

During the field seasons of 2012 and 2013 I was the entomology team leader at Operation Wallacea, Indonesia. The country of Indonesia is a huge country made up of around 18,000 islands across 5,000km. With a population of around 260 million people, and an incredible diversity of approximately 730 different languages. It is unsurprising, therefore, that the island biogeography provides a hot-house for speciation in this tropical island region with an incredible examples of adaptation and endemism. The Wallacea region, named after the famous naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace

I worked in the main base for the university students doing the jungle training course, and the starting point for school students in south Buton is the village of Labundo. I conducted lepidoptera pollard surveys, banana baited bottle canopy arthropod surveys and Dung beetle surveys in both natural habitats and disturbed agricultural ecosystems. As well as this, I conducted rapid biodiversity assessment of termites using the standard transect method.