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Conehead Termites (Nasutitermes Corniger) – Profile and Information

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The conehead termites is a species of termites distinguished by its shape of the head. It is very closely related to Nasutitermes ephratae, both species have been studied fairly intensively, particularly on Barro Colorado Island in Panama.

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These studies and others have revealed that the termite interacts with many different animals, including different species of ants and a bat that roosts and cohabit with the termite.

Conehead termites (Nasutitermes corniger) classification

  • Kingdom: Animalia
  • Phylum: Arthropoda
  • Class: Insecta
  • Order: Isoptera
  • Family: Termitidae
  • Genus: Nasutitermes
  • Species: N. corniger

Characteristics

The conehead termites usually have a cream body and a dark brown head. The most distinct caste of this species of termites is the soldiers, with the fontanelle enlarged to form an enormous bulb or pear-shaped head pointed at the front, and the soldiers can squirt a defensive liquid out this tube to entangle enemies attacking the colony.

Nests are often enormous, rounded mud nests positioned up in trees, with the mud tubes and ducts meandering down on the exterior of the bark of the trees.

The nests of Conehead termites are dark brown on the surface, and there may also be localised lobes on the surface of the nest.

The queen lives in a chamber located in the centre of the nest, (often near the tree trunk or branch to which the nest is attached), that is up to 8 cm wide and 1 cm high and heavily reinforced.

The thickness of the walls in the nest decreases away from the queen and towards the exterior, although if the nest is attacked by predators, then the walls will be reinforced.

In one study of their nests, the heaviest nest identified weighed 28 kilograms and measured 68 cm by 46 cm by 34 cm.

The reproductives of the Conehead termites have black wings, dark bodies, and an eyespot which are located relatively far from the eyes.

Social behaviour

Termite colonies are examples of eusocial insects. Eusocial insects are animals that develop vast, multigenerational communal societies that help each other in the rearing of their young, often at the cost of an individual’s life or reproductive ability.

This behaviour is described; in that eusocial insects benefit from giving up their reproductive ability to improve the overall health of closely related off breed.

In most cases, in some insects, including termites, different castes work to fill various needs that the whole colony may have. In Nasutitermes as well as most other termite species, there are three primary castes: reproductive alates, workers, and soldiers.

Fortress defence

The benefits to this altruistic behaviour come in two ecological modes: life insurers and fortress defenders. Most Hymenoptera, the vast majority of social insects, are life insurers, where eusociality is used as a precaution against low life expectancy of offspring.

Termites, as fortress defenders, function from working together to best capitalise on a beneficial ecological resource, in the case of Conehead termites, usually a vast wood gallery.

Fortress defence is enough to evolve eusociality when three criteria are met: food coinciding with shelter, selection for protection against intruders and predators, and the ability to defend such a habitat.

Termite colonies are typically large nests or mounds enclosures that contain enormous supplies of wood for the termites to feed on, which fulfils the first criteria for fortress defence.

In Conehead termites, the soldier caste has had their heads adapted to emit a pine-sap, noxious, sticky liquid when under attack from Tamandua anteaters. The secretion contains pinnene and other high molecular weight compounds that prevent the anteater from returning.

The termites then remain on the lookout near the breach for several minutes. This defence of the habitat adequately satisfies the other two criteria for fortress defence.

The fortress defence strategy necessitated the development of soldiers first, which has led to the unique specialisation of the Conehead Termites.

The Conehead termite shows a large amount of aggression to rival colonies. This indicates that there is a manner of kin recognition among this species, that enables it to discern between its colony and the next.

It has also been discovered that some separate colonies display significantly low aggression to each other and which frequently result in colony fusion.

Reproduction

The number of fertile individuals produced by colonies of Conehead termites varies widely. Mature colonies with about 50,000 and 400,000 infertile workers typically produce between 5,000 and 25,000 reproductive alates.

In some years large colonies do not create a fertile breed. Alate nymphs develop through five stages and spend between 5 to 8 months before leaving the colony to mate. When the alates are mature, they typically account for over 35% of the colony’s biomass.

As more males are produced from each colony but because females are heavier by about 20 and 40% the energy involved in each sex is similar.

Newly formed colonies tend to have plenty queens and kings all living in the same royal chamber in one colony, but as it progress, colonies tend to comprise of multiple queens (up to 33) with only one king, in these cases, the species can be considered polygynous, although over some years the species can become monogamous having only one queen and one king.

Being polygynous in the early stages of the colony is beneficial as it allows the colony to produce many workers in a short interval and allows the production of female alates faster than if they were monogamous.

Range/Habitat

The conehead termite is a species of arboreal termite that is peculiar to the neotropics, commonly found in Bolivia, Guatemala Panamá Honduras, Costa Rica, Mexico, Trinidad, Tobago, Puerto Rico and Venezuela and lately in Florida.

Nasutitermes corniger also called Motschulsky with the common name conehead termite, was discovered near a marina in Dania Beach, Florida in 2001, where the intrusive species was probably moved from its original range in South and Central America or the Caribbean.

In January of 2016, another infestation was found in Pompano Beach, Florida, roughly 21 km north of the Dania Beach population.

The potential economic and environmental consequences of this intrusive termite are tremendous as a result of its broad diet, which can include native and ornamental plants, natural landscapes and structures, crops and orchards.

Noticeable tunnels and aboveground nests are the key characteristics of this species colony that make them susceptible to discovery, control and possibly extermination.

The now demonstrated ability of the species to create breeding populations in the United States of America, consequently to cause substantial property and landscape destruction, and to dissipate by human transport intensifies the need for continued aggressive efforts toward eradication of known infestations.

Feeding Habits

Nasutitermes corniger is an ecologically adaptable species that has a broad diet. Trees, shrubs, live trees, sticks, bushes, lumber in structures, stumps, roots, structures, fences, wooden pallets and furniture, scrap wood, paper products, and many other items made of cellulose.

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