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Ecosystem Engineers

July 1, 2010

Termites drive the fertility of the African savanna ecosystem.


An ecosystem’s tiny engineers…I’m Bob Hirshon and this is Science Update.

When you think of the African savanna, lions and elephants probably come to mind. But according to biologists Robert Pringle of Harvard and Todd Palmer of the University of Florida, the tiny termite is the true driving force behind the fertility of savannas. Palmer explains.

TODD PALMER (University of Florida):
The termites are really running the entire show in the savanna. As decomposers, they sort of close the loop on the cycling of materials within the savanna ecosystem. Termites increase the concentration of nutrients and organic material which gives a big bump to plant productivity in these areas, and all sort of cascades upward through the entire community.

Palmer says the increased plant life in turn attracts large animals like zebras and giraffes, which themselves contribute to even greater productivity. I’m Bob Hirshon, for AAAS, the science society.