Incomplete Co-cladogenesis between Zootermopsis Termites and Their Associated Protists

Stephen J. Taerum, Francesca De Martini, Juergen Liebig, Gillian Gile

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

14 Scopus citations


Coevolution is a major driver of speciation in many host-associated symbionts. In the termite-protist digestive symbiosis, the protists are vertically inherited by anal feeding among nest mates. Lower termites (all termite families except Termitidae) and their symbionts have broadly co-diversified over ~170 million yr. However, this inference is based mainly on the restricted distribution of certain protist genera to certain termite families. With the exception of one study, which demonstrated congruent phylogenies for the protist Pseudotrichonympha and its Rhinotermitidae hosts, coevolution in this symbiosis has not been investigated with molecular methods. Here we have characterized the hindgut symbiotic protists (Phylum Parabasalia) across the genus Zootermopsis (Archotermopsidae) using single cell isolation, molecular phylogenetics, and high-throughput amplicon sequencing. We report that the deepest divergence in the Zootermopsis phylogeny (Zootermopsis laticeps [Banks; Isoptera: Termopsidae]) corresponds with a divergence in three of the hindgut protist species. However, the crown Zootermopsis taxa (Zootermopsis angusticollis [Hagen; Isoptera: Termopsidae], Z. nevadensis nevadensis [Hagen; Isoptera: Termopsidae], and Z. nevadensis nuttingi [Haverty & Thorne; Isoptera: Termopsidae]) share the same protist species, with no evidence of co-speciation under our methods. We interpret this pattern as incomplete co-cladogenesis, though the possibility of symbiont exchange cannot be entirely ruled out. This is the first molecular evidence that identical communities of termite-associated protist species can inhabit multiple distinct host species.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)184-195
Number of pages12
JournalEnvironmental entomology
Issue number1
StatePublished - Feb 8 2018


  • Coevolution
  • Phylogenetics
  • Protists
  • Symbiosis
  • Termite

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Ecology
  • Insect Science


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