Inter-continental patterns in the fine-scale spatial ecology of rain forest termites
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In this thesis I describe fine-scale spatial patterns in rain forest termites, from the colony to the assemblage level, sampled from one hectare plots in Central African and South East Asian lowland rain forest. By so doing the ecological interactions that structure this functionally important and abundant soil community were identified. The African termite assemblage, dominated by soil-feeding termites, saturated the upper soil profile (collected from 90% of soil pits). In contrast termites were collected from <50% of soil pits in Asia, with this difference reflecting the lower species densities and abundances of soil-feeding termites in Asian forests. Territoriality and inter-specific competition was shown to be important between colonies of soil-feeding species in the African plot. The termite assemblages were spatially associated with several environmental properties. However these could not explain the spatial patterns in the functional components of the assemblages. Wood-feeding termites were highly patchily distributed, due to the heterogeneous nature of their food material, but also due to possible competitive interactions for this. Humus-feeding termites were homogenously structured, due to the continuous nature of soil as their feeding and nesting material. True soil-feeding termites, unique to the African assemblage, were heterogeneously distributed despite the equally continuous nature of their feeding and nesting material. This structure may arise from facilitative interactions, such as co-operative defence against ant predation which may be intense in African systems, or through the transfer of soil material at different stages of decomposition. Competition for space is apparent in both regions, both at the colony level among soil-feeding genera, and between aggregations of functional groups. Positive and negative biotic interactions, operating at various spatial and functional scales, appear to be important in influencing how assemblage composition is spatially structured. If indeed facilitation is important in maintaining the taxonomic and functional diversity in termite assemblages, it would be valuable to confirm the mechanism(s) that drives this (i.e. predation and/or food transfer), as these may then influence ecosystem stability.
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