SM8 from Termites manipulate moisture content of wood to maximize foraging resources

Animals use cues to find their food, in microhabitats within their physiological tolerances. Termites build and modify their microhabitat, to transform hostile environments into benign ones, which raises questions about the relative importance of cues. Termites are desiccation intolerant and foraging termites are attracted to water, so most research has considered moisture to be a cue. However, termites can also transport water to food, and so moisture may play other roles than previously considered. To examine the role of moisture, we compared Coptotermes acinaciformis termite foraging decisions in laboratory experiments when they were offered dry and moist wood, with and without load. Without load, termites preferred moist wood and ate it without any building, whereas they moistened dry wood after wrapping it in a layer of clay. For the ‘With load’ units, termites substituted some of the wood for load-bearing clay walls, and kept the wood drier than on the unloaded units. As drier wood has higher compressive strength and higher rigidity, it allows more of the wood to be consumed. These results suggest that moisture plays a more important role in termite ecology than previously thought. Termites manipulate the moisture content according to the situational context and use it for multiple purposes: increased moisture levels soften the fibre, which facilitates foraging, yet keeping the wood dry provides higher structural stability against buckling which is especially important when foraging on wood under load.