The Importance of Termites to the CH4 Balance of a Tropical Savanna Woodland of Northern Australia

Abstract

Termites produce methane (CH4) as a by-product of microbial metabolism of food in their hindguts, and are one of the most uncertain components of the regional and global CH4 exchange estimates. This study was conducted at Howard Springs near Darwin, and presents the first estimate of CH4 emissions from termites based on replicated in situ seasonal flux measurements in Australian savannas. Using measured fluxes of CH4 between termite mounds and the atmosphere, and between soil and the atmosphere across seasons we determined net CH4 flux within a tropical savanna woodland of northern Australia. By accounting for both mound-building and subterranean termite colony types, and estimating the contribution from tree-dwelling colonies it was calculated that termites were a CH4 source of +0.24 kg CH4-C ha−1 y−1 and soils were a CH4 sink of −1.14 kg CH4-C ha−1 y−1. Termites offset 21% of CH4 consumed by soil resulting in net sink strength of −0.90 kg CH4-C ha−1 y−1 for these savannas. For Microcerotermes nervosus (Hill), the most abundant mound-building termite species at this site, mound basal area explained 48% of the variation in mound CH4 flux. CH4 emissions from termites offset 0.1% of the net biome productivity (NBP) and CH4 consumption by soil adds 0.5% to the NBP of these tropical savannas at Howard Springs.

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Acknowledgments

This research was supported by the Australian Research Council, Linkage project grant LP0774812. Jamali was supported by an AusAID postgraduate scholarship. We are thankful to Gus Wanganeen from CSIRO Ecosystem Sciences, Darwin for identifying the termite species. We are thankful to Dr Alan Anderson from CSIRO Ecosystem Sciences, Darwin and Dr Brett Murphy from the University of Tasmania for reviewing an earlier draft of this manuscript. In Charles Darwin National Park research was carried out through permit number 29227 of the Northern Territory Government, Australia.

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Correspondence to Hizbullah Jamali.

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HJ conceived of and designed study, performed research, analyzed data and wrote paper; SJL conceived of and designed study, performed research; SPG performed research, analyzed data; TZD designed study, contributed methods; LBH conceived of and designed study, performed research; GDC conceived of and designed study; SKA conceived of and designed study, performed research.

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Jamali, H., Livesley, S.J., Grover, S.P. et al. The Importance of Termites to the CH4 Balance of a Tropical Savanna Woodland of Northern Australia. Ecosystems 14, 698–709 (2011). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10021-011-9439-5

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Key words

  • methane
  • termite mounds
  • soil methane oxidation
  • subterranean termites
  • hypogeal termites
  • Microcerotermes nervosus