Termite sensitivity to temperature affects global wood decay rates


Deadwood is a large global carbon store with its store size partially determined by biotic decay. Microbial wood decay rates are known to respond to changing temperature and precipitation. Termites are also important decomposers in the tropics but are less well studied. An understanding of their climate sensitivities is needed to estimate climate change effects on wood carbon pools. Using data from 133 sites spanning six continents, we found that termite wood discovery and consumption were highly sensitive to temperature (with decay increasing >6.8 times per 10°C increase in temperature)—even more so than microbes. Termite decay effects were greatest in tropical seasonal forests, tropical savannas, and subtropical deserts. With tropicalization (i.e., warming shifts to tropical climates), termite wood decay will likely increase as termites access more of Earth’s surface. Decomposition rates vary with temperature and precipitation, in part because of the effects of climate on decomposer organisms. Although microbes are widely recognized as decomposers, animals such as insects also play a key role in tropical systems. Zanne et al. replicated an experiment at 133 global sites to quantify climate-related variation in wood decomposition by both microbes and termites. Climate influenced both microbial and termite decomposition, but termite presence and activity were more sensitive to temperature. Termites may thus play a larger role in global wood decomposition as the climate warms. —BEL A globally distributed field experiment shows that wood decay, particularly by termites, depends on temperature.