Community Ecology


, Volume 149, Issue 2, pp 301-311

First online:

Vertical stratification of the termite assemblage in a neotropical rainforest

  • Yves RoisinAffiliated withBehavioural and Evolutionary Ecology, CP 160/12, Université Libre de Bruxelles Email author 
  • , Alain DejeanAffiliated withLaboratoire d’Evolution et Diversité Biologique, UMR-CNRS 5174, Bât. 4R3, Université Toulouse III
  • , Bruno CorbaraAffiliated withOpération Canopée & LAPSCO, UMR-CNRS 6024, Université Blaise Pascal
  • , Jerôme OrivelAffiliated withLaboratoire d’Evolution et Diversité Biologique, UMR-CNRS 5174, Bât. 4R3, Université Toulouse III
  • , Mirna SamaniegoAffiliated withSmithsonian Tropical Research Institute
  • , Maurice LeponceAffiliated withSection of Conservation Biology, Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences

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The importance of termites as decomposers in tropical forests has long been recognized. Studies on the richness and diversity of termite species and their ecological function have flourished in more recent times, but these have been mostly conducted in a thin stratum within a standing man’s reach. Our aims were to evaluate the specific richness and composition of the termite assemblage in the canopy of a tropical rainforest and to determine its originality with respect to the sympatric ground-level fauna. We conducted systematic searches for canopy termites, together with conventional sampling of the sympatric ground-level fauna, in the San Lorenzo forest, Panama. We hypothesized that (1) the canopy accommodates two categories of wood-feeding termites (long-distance foragers and small-colony “one-piece” species) and possibly soil-feeders in suspended soil-like habitats; (2) due to the abundance of soil-feeders, the overall diversity of the ground fauna is higher than that of the canopy; (3) differences in microclimate and resource accessibility favour vertical stratification among wood-feeders. Sixty-three canopy samples yielded ten species of termites, all wood-feeders. Five of these were not found at ground level, although a total of 243 ground samples were collected, representing 29 species. In addition to long-distance foragers (Microcerotermes and Nasutitermes spp.) and small-colony termites (mostly Kalotermitidae), the canopy fauna included Termes hispaniolae, a wood-feeding Termitidae from an allegedly soil-feeding genus, living in large dead branches. Soil-feeders were absent from the canopy, probably because large epiphytes were scarce. As predicted, the ground fauna was much richer than that of the canopy, but the species richness of both habitats was similar when only wood-feeders were considered. Vertical stratification was strongly marked among wood-feeders, as all common species, apart from the arboreal-nesting Microcerotermes arboreus, could unequivocally be assigned to either a ground or a canopy group. The canopy, therefore, contributes significantly to the total species richness of the termite assemblage, and the diversity, abundance and ecological importance of canopy termites in tropical rainforests may be higher than previously recognized.


Canopy Isoptera Panama Species richness Vertical distribution