Review of termite forest ecology and opportunities to investigate the relationship of termites to fire
In forests, termites serve as “soil engineers,” translocating mineral soil to the surface, constructing macropores to improve water infiltration, increase soil minerals and organic carbon, facilitate the growth of microbes and affect the growth of vegetation. The future productivity of a forest site therefore depends to some degree on termite activity. Termites could reduce the probability of forest fire by reducing fuel loads, either through direct consumption of the wood or through the augmentation of decay fungi. Should a fire adversely affect termite populations in a forest, the decomposition of unburned woody debris will be delayed and nutrient cycling in the forest will be interrupted. For small fires, such as prescribed burning, such interruption is largely a nonissue. Catastrophic or stand-replacing wildfire, however, might affect termite populations in three non-mutually exclusive ways: direct mortality due to the fire itself, through the conversion of cellulose to indigestible materials, and through alterations of the soil. Due to their slow dispersal relative to other soil organisms, termites re-colonize severely burned areas slowly, but can be instrumental in the rehabilitation of waste areas. Termite presence might be augmented to increase the future productivity of a severely burned site. This paper is a review of termite contributions to forest health and fire prevention, the effects of fire on termite populations, the re-colonization of severely burned areas, and the contribution of termites to waste area rehabilitation.