Like creatures from a bad SciFi movie, a real "terminator" is out there and we likely created it.
Publishing their findings In the online journal, PLoS-One researchers at the University of Florida report the successful hybridization of two termite species and the production of viable offspring. According to their study::
"Formosan subterranean termites and Asian subterranean termites are the two most economically important termite pests in the world. Both species have spread throughout many parts of the world by human activity. Their distributions overlap in only three narrow areas due to distinct ecological requirements. In south Florida, the dispersal seasons of both species overlapped for the first time on record in 2013 and 2014 and matings of heterospecific individuals were readily observed in the field. In the lab, heterospecific (different species) and conspecific (same species) pairings had an equal colony establishment rate, but hybrid colonies had twice the growth rate of same conspecific colonies, suggesting a potential case of hybrid vigor."
Because of their ecological differences, the two invasive species rarely interacted but in south Florida the timing of their mating patterns has changed and now overlap. Climate change is the suspected driver of this change. The two species now "swarm" together and this has created the inter-specific hybrids observed.
Asian Termite Species Distribution and Inter-specific Hybrid Colonies (credit: PloS-One)
After cockroaches, termites are one of the most persistent insect pests building owners normally encounter. The National Pest Management Association says: "termites eat 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, meaning damage to wood structures can happen very quickly. NPMA has estimated termites cause $5 billion in property damage and losses of approximately 600,000 homes each year in the US."
Field studies are continuing to confirm if the newly observed hybrid termites are producing fertile offspring but one of the lead researchers on the study said:
“the combination of genes between these two species has resulted in highly vigorous hybridized colonies that can develop twice as fast as the parental species. Our results raise a tangible concern about the hybridization of two major destructive pest species. Such hybrids would likely be associated with a new economic impact.”
These are potentially very bad bugs, another example of biology negatively impacting an economy, and so it's time to beware the "Super Termites".