How Are Seemingly Identical Termites Distinguished As Separate Species?

January 14, 2019 | Posted In: Georgia Pest & Termite Control

Up until recently, termites have compromised their very own insect order known as Isoptera. However, recent genetic studies have revealed that termites actually evolved from ancient wood-eating cockroaches. This makes the termite order, Isoptera, a suborder of the cockroach order, Blattodea. Considering the fact that this discovery was only made recently, it is not hard to believe that the process of making taxonomic distinctions between closely related termite species is far from an exact science. Today, some entomologists have the advantage of using cutting-edge genetic profiling technology to make species-distinctions between even the most similar, and sometimes morphologically identical termite specimens. However, this sort of technology is still being perfected and is not yet widely available to academic researchers working in university entomology departments. For the most part, entomologists are still relying on observable physical differences when making species-distinctions between different termite specimens.

The observable differences between the physical structures of different animal specimens are referred to as “morphological differences.” Before the technological means for making genetic distinctions between animal specimens became available, natural scientists relied on external morphological differences and internal morphological differences to determine which animal specimens constituted their own species. Since termites are tiny insects, relying on mere morphological differences to determine which termites make up their own species is, in some cases, insufficient. Traditionally, entomologists have focused on differences between termite soldiers in order to distinguish one species from another. However, this can be difficult when studying termites that share overlapping habitats, as different species often possess morphological structures that cannot be distinguished, at least not right away. This is why termite specimens are often reshuffled into different taxonomic categories over time. When it comes to soil-feeding termite soldiers, which often appear identical despite belonging to different species, entomologists analyze the internal morphological differences between workers, as soil feeding worker termites that share habitats possess dissimilar digestive structures. Relying on such differences is often sufficient in order to make valid species-distinctions, with the exception of Coptotermes species, which include Formosan subterranean termites and Asian subterranean termites. Now that advanced genetic analysis is available, many researchers are finding that Coptotermes species actually comprise far more species than traditionally thought.

Do you think that there could be more than one species of what is now known as the Formosan subterranean termite?