Australia fights a highly destructive termite aided by climate change – The Washington Post

by | Jan 1, 2023 | Climate Change

Comment on this storyCommentGift ArticleTENNANT CREEK, Australia — In a forgotten restaurant behind a gas station in this country’s red center, only metal and plastic parts remain unscathed. Chris Cook grabs at a timber door frame, which crumples like paper in his hand.“This has all just collapsed,” says Cook, a manager at Territory Pest Control in Australia’s Northern Territory. He eyes boards hanging in ragged pieces from the ceiling. Since he last visited the abandoned building three years ago, thousands of uninvited guests have been busy.The destruction at Galaxy Auditorium restaurant at Wycliffe Well — a tiny highway stop calling itself the “UFO capital of Australia” — is the destruction that could lie ahead for many places on the continent unless Mastotermes darwiniensis can be stopped. These termites are the last survivors of an ancestral species that shared space with dinosaurs 150 million years ago. They’re voracious and relentless. And because of climate change, they, like their fellow kin, are expanding their range.AdvertisementA study conducted on six continents and published in Science in September revealed just how much termites love a warming planet.“The extreme response was really surprising,” said Amy Zanne, a professor of tropical ecology at the University of Miami and the study’s lead author. She corralled more than 100 scientists to place blocks of wood at 133 sites around the world and then measure the speed at which they were eaten in different climates. “We ran the numbers again and again,” she said.Termites are crazy about heat, the study confirmed and quantified. For every 10-degree Celsius (18-degree Fahrenheit) increase in temperature, their “wood discovery and consumption” increased almost sevenfold.The Australian species is the most primitive of all termites, the closest to the root of the evolutionary tree. Also called “mastos” or giant northern termites, they have a breeding superpower: Almost any member of a colony can transform itself into the breeding queen if the previous monarch is felled. Not only that, they have a broad palate and have been known to eat lead, plastic, leather, ivory and asphalt. Cook once treated a colony that took to a concrete building’s water pipes and climbed eight stories.AdvertisementThe species has long been an infuriating part of life in the tropical north of Australia, the only place it once was found. But over the past two decades, it has started establishing itself farther south.Cook spends his days driving thousands of mil …

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