Termites, of the order Isoptera (meaning equal wing), first appeared on Earth over 250 millions years ago. Termites, cockroaches, and mantids are all descendants of a common primitive ancestor – a cockroach-like insect that walked amongst dinosaurs.
Termites play a major role in the decomposition process due to their ability to digest cellulose (plant fibers). Interestingly enough – a termite does not actually digest the cellulose, but rather relies on protozoa in its gut to do so. They acquire these protozoan through eating other termites’ fecal matter.
Description of Isoptera
All members of Isoptera have certain characteristics: pale, elongated bodies, wings (for reproductives), mandibles (workers), and antennae. The reproductive termites have two pairs of wings that are of equal length. These wings are shed once the termites mate. To consume fibrous plant matter, termite soldiers have chewing mandibles. Antennae are roughly the length of the head.
Where they Live
Termites are social insects that live in colonies. The colonies are divided into a caste system: reproductives, soldiers, and workers. They each have a specific role that contributes to the well-being of the colony. Clear-cut roles also allow them to specialize in certain tasks – soldiers defend the colony, workers take care of feeding the soldiers and reproductives, reproductives reproduce and start new colonies. There are over 2,000 described termite species, and about 40 of those species live in the U.S. Most termite species prefer the warm and moist environments found in the tropics.
Here are some families in the order:
- Rhinotermitidae – subterranean termites
- Termopsidae – rottenwood termites
- Kalotermitidae – dampwood and drywood termites
- Termitidae – higher termites
- Hodotermitidae – harvester termites
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