Termite mounds punctuate recently burnt spinifex in remote Western Australia. Image Credit: JEFF DREWITZ

Land of white cockroaches

  • BY Tim Low |
  • January 06, 2016

Imagine if cockroaches invaded your kitchen, and then ate it up. That’s not a far-fetched scenario, given recent evidence that termites are really tiny social cockroaches.

Tim Low Australian Geographic blogger contributor Wild Journey
Contributor
Tim Low

Tim Low lives in a state of perpetual surprise at everything wild and alive. His response is to write searching books, Australian Geographic articles and this blog. His book Where Song Began (Penguin, 2014) recently became the first nature book ever to win the Australian Book Industry Award for best general non-fiction.

THEY'RE SOMETIMES CALLED ‘white ants’ when ‘white cockroaches’ are what they really are.

These cockroaches made possible Australia’s unique musical instrument – a didgeridoo starts out as a small tree trunk hollowed out by termites. Most eucalypts in the tropics are piped (hollowed), showing how successful in Australia termites are. Their little skyscrapers of cemented soil crowd many of our northern plains. Some of them live inside trees, so there are always more of their nests than meet the eye.

That termites are cockroaches has been proved beyond doubt. Asia and America have cockroaches that are genetically closer to termites than to other roaches, although they are big and brown. Like termites, they chew tunnels inside decaying logs. They live in much smaller groups than do termites, which trouble us so much because they collaborate in vast numbers. 

The cockroaches that patrol our kitchens show hints of group living – when they gather behind a cupboard, brothers and sisters come together, united by the family odour. Group decisions are made about where to dine and what to eat. Cockroaches reared alone grow slowly and suffer what researchers call ‘isolation disorders’, blamed on a lack of tactile stimulation. A moving feather has been found to fix that.

Australia has the termite hailed as the most primitive on earth – in other words, the termite that comes closest to being a regular cockroach. The giant northern termite (Mastotermes darwiniensis) is unusually large as termites go and the only one that behaves like a typical cockroach by laying eggs in capsules. Some very old fossils show that Mastotermes once gnawed wood in England, Mexico and places in between.

‘Primitive’ can mean backward, but our giant termites are decidedly forthright in their raids on homes and crops. As major pests in northern Australia their tastes reach beyond wood to include electric cables, leather, wool and rubber. They are reason to give thanks that most cockroaches keep to being regular cockroaches.

We humans are perpetually waging war against termites, but their worst enemies – able to invade their abodes in large numbers – are ants. Ants are just a group of social, flightless wasps – but that’s a story for another day…

Tim Low is the author of the award-winning book Where Song Began. Follow him on Twitter @TimLow5.