'Super-Termites' Emerge From Hybrid Swarms in Florida

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Climate change may be the reason Formosan termites are swarming alongside Asian termites...and mating with them. Scott Bauer [public domain]/Flickr

Termites are some of the most destructive pests in the world, causing more than $1 billion dollars in damage each year in the U.S. alone. Now they might be evolving into something even more calamitous. Researchers at the University of Florida have tracked the development of a strange new hybrid species of "super-termite" that grows twice as fast as other termites, reports IFAS News.

Super-termites might sound like imagined Spider-Man villains, but these bugs are very real. They are born from the interbreeding of two other species of termite, Asian and Formosan subterranean termites, both of which just happen to be the most destructive termite species in the world. Researchers believe the hybrid babies produced from this unnatural pairing might turn out to be the most fearsome termites of them all.

Neither of the two parent species are native to South Florida, but the locale is one of only three places in the world — along with Taiwan and Hawaii — where they coexist. In the past, the two species rarely interacted due to having separate mating seasons, but lately these patterns have changed, possibly due to climate change. Formosans are swarming alongside Asians, and they're mating...with each other.

“This is worrisome, as the combination of genes between the two species results in highly vigorous hybridized colonies that can develop twice as fast as the two parental species,” said Thomas Chouvenc, one of the researchers who has been studying the new super-termites. “The establishment of hybrid termite populations is expected to result in dramatically increased damage to structures in the near future.”

So far it's unclear whether the super-termites are able to produce offspring of their own. Many hybrid animals, such as mules, are infertile. If they are able to reproduce, however, the problem could get worse in a hurry. The hybrids have already inherited the most invasive traits from both parent species, and if they can breed then they'll be able to spread and invade other territories rapidly.

Even if they are infertile, however, the hybrids are inevitably going to become a growing threat in South Florida.

“Because a termite colony can live up to 20 years with millions of individuals, the damaging potential of a hybrid colony remains a serious threat to homeowners even if the hybrid colony does not produce fertile winged termites,” explained Nan-Yao Su, an entomology professor at the UF Fort Lauderdale Research and Education Center.

“Right now, we barely see the tip of the iceberg,” Su added. “But we know it’s a big one.”