Termites of the Frozen Tundra: How Do They Survive?

One look at our snowy landscape in Wisconsin and it would be easy to assume termites couldn’t survive here. These wood-destroying critters are a common concern for people living in warmer climates, but amazingly, certain species of subterranean termites have been introduced and become established in the northern United States and Canada, as well.

map for termite distribution

Simplified map showing distribution of eastern subterranean termites along its northern range. (Only selected populations are shown to highlight major zones of activity.)

Termites’ ability to adapt to a colder climate was studied in the 1970s and 1980s by Forest Products Laboratory (FPL) researcher Glenn Esenther. Today, FPL entomologist Rachel Arango is still fascinated by the phenomenon.

“Insects are poikilothermic, which basically means that body temperature is determined by the external environment,” explains Arango. “So, temperature is a major factor in species distribution.”

Figuring out how certain populations of subterranean termites can tolerate lower temperatures is important for predicting the potential spread and economic impact of termites, as they are already responsible for billions of dollars in damage to structures annually in North America.

Arango and her termite team will directly compare northern and southern populations of eastern subterranean termites in hopes of better understanding how some are able to survive in colder regions. Concurrent tests between Wisconsin and Mississippi populations will include studying basic differences in cold tolerance, behavioral investigations, and research into genetic differences.

“We hope to identify some of the physiological changes that might increase cold tolerance,” says Arango.

Arango expects the research will be beneficial not only for understanding termites, but for broader research into invasive species, as well, particularly as global climate conditions change.

Results are expected by May 2019. For more details on the study, see this Research in Progress report.