Researchers in South Florida have recently found that the two most invasive termite species in the world may eventually produce new termite hybrid that cold be devastating. This new species could reproduce faster than their parent species and might have a larger range.
The Asian (Coptotermes gestroi) and Formosan (Coptotermes formosanus) subterranean termite species cause an estimated $40 billion worth of damage worldwide, the researchers reported. Both types of termite have evolved separately for hundreds of thousands of years. Due to human expansion and trade, the species were brought together in Taiwan, Hawaii and South Florida.
The study’s lead researcher, Thomas Chouvenc, an assistant research scientist of entomology at the University of Florida, has observed the two mating. This raises concerns that the hybrid offspring might have developed a temperature tolerance that stretches from North Carolina to Brazil. “That is the worst-case scenario,” said Chouvenc who has observed the hybrids growing in the lab.
In South Florida, the Asian termite typically mates in February, and the Formosan usually mates in April. In March 2013, Chouvenc found the two species mating at the same time. He believes that the warming climate has changed the termites’ mating seasons, but more evidence is needed to find the root cause.
The size of the hybrid brood, nearly twice the size of either parent group, is another concern, According to Chouvenc, when the researchers observed a Formosan colony and an Asian colony that were kept separate in the lab, each colony had about 80 offspring after a year. However, when the Formosan mated with the Asian termites, their colony produced about 150 termites in a year. The researchers are currently replicating the experiment to see if they get the same results.
The new study details a “fascinating situation” and “a sobering picture,” said Ed Vargo, a professor of entomology at Texas A&M University. “You have the two most destructive subterranean termite species in the world, and here they are, brought together through human activity, being introduced together in a place where they’re not native, and they’re hybridizing,” Vargo said.