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Hybrid Termite Species

Imagine if you had the two most invasive species of termites in the entire world mating in the hotbed of invasive species that is South Florida. That is a recipe for disaster which has led to the creation of a super pest which can grow in population faster than both originating species. On top of that, researchers believe that they have a larger range of potential habitats as well.

The two species in question are the Asian and Formosan subterranean termites. The Formosan termite originated in China and Taiwan and the Asian termite comes from Southeast Asia. Both of these termite species have evolved completely separately from each other for what could be hundreds of thousands of years, but now due to trade and human movement, they have been brought together in Hawaii, Taiwan and Florida.

Now, researchers have observed the two species mating, which has raised concerns that a new hybrid species might emerge that has a temperature tolerance that would allow it to live in an area stretching from Brazil to North Carolina.

The two species also changed their mating patterns. When in South Florida, the Formosan termite will usually mate in April, and the Asian termite in February. Some scientists believe that the root cause of this new mating pattern is climate change and warming weather.

In a lab setting, the Asian male termite will choose the female Formosan, even when given the chance to mate with a termite from his own species. One of the reasons for this behavior might be that the two species use the same mating pheromone, but the Formosan female produces slightly more of it than its Asian termite counterpart and this makes it more desirable to males.

Once the mating was over, the hybrid brood that followed was twice as large as that of either parent species. In a laboratory setting, each colony had around 80 offspring after one year when the two species were separated, while the hybrid species had 150 offspring after a year.

Researchers are still interested in finding out if the hybrid species is capable of reproduction, or if it is sterile. The next question to ask is whether the hybrid termites have colonies in the wild, and for how long have they been mating. It usually takes around 8 years for a colony to produce winged females and males, or alates, which leave their nests, swarm, mate and lose their wings in order to form a new colony. If the hybrids cannot grow wings, or if they cannot mate, they will simply be a species that is very active, very destructive, but which only lasts for a generation. It would also limit the geographical spread of this new species.

Scientists have found the study both fascinating and sobering, because these are two of the most destructive termite species, hybridizing and creating a new superspecies which might be even more devastating.

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