To the average person, termites are very similar to ants. In fact, the word "termite" is derived from a Latin term that means "woodworm" or "white ant." However, these insects aren't ants at all. Instead, termites are now part of the cockroach order Blattodea. After decades of research, the Entomological Society of America is changing its categorization to reflect this, bringing the number of cockroach species to more than 4,500 worldwide.
The Evolution of Termites
Almost 200 million years ago in the mid-Jurassic period, Pangea broke apart and created the seven continents that the world knows in present day. During the split, cockroaches were forced to adapt to changing environments. They had to evolve to survive in new climates and terrain.
For the next 120 million years, dinosaurs became extinct as the climate turned drier and colder, and termites appeared. Scientists have recorded that the oldest termite colony is from the Upper Cretaceous era. The colony was discovered in West Texas in 1986. It's believed that they traveled on rotting logs across the ocean from ancient Africa. This makes termites about 50 million years old.
Decades of Research
Termites were initially categorized in their own order of insects, the Isoptera. As early as 1934, however, entomologists have speculated that they share ancestry with cockroaches, particularly the Cryptocercus. Both insects eat wood and have symbiotic relationships with microorganisms that live in their intestinal tracts and allow them to digest wood.
Cryptocercus roaches also live in similar fashion to termites. In the Appalachian Mountains, they eat wood, making tunnels and nests to raise offspring. The young survive off of their parents' waste, which introduces them to wood-digesting gut microbes. Eventually, they leave the nest and repeat the cycle on their own.
In 2007, the ability to analyze DNA allowed scientists to assess the genetics of termites. With new genetic discoveries, they proposed that the insects be reclassified as the family Termitidae within the Blattodea order of cockroaches. The National University of Singapore's researchers further revealed in 2015 that termites and cockroaches have common ancestry.
Reclassification of Termites
Researchers explain that termites are simply social cockroaches. While various roach species have social lives, termites take it to the extreme. Only a few insects in a colony reproduce, while the others are soldiers and workers. In Australia, a colony of Macrotermes can have 3 million termites but only one queen and one king. As of February 15, 2018, the ESA agreed to update its master insect list to reflect that termites are cockroaches.
Despite the recategorization, termites will retain their common names. Although it could be surprising to the average homeowner, It's no shock for pest experts. Contact Terminix West Michigan and our team of experts will provide effective termite control services.