Resistance of mound-building termites to anthropogenic land-use change

Andrew B. Davies, Philip G. Brodrick, Catherine L. Parr, Gregory P. Asner

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

20 Scopus citations


Humans pose a major threat to many species through land-use change in virtually every habitat. However, the extent of this threat is largely unknown for invertebrates due to challenges with investigating their distributions at large scales. This knowledge gap is particularly troublesome for soil macrofauna because of the critical roles many of these organisms perform as ecosystem engineers. We used a combination of high-resolution airborne Light Detection and Ranging and deep learning models to map the distribution of the ecologically important termite genus Macrotermes across a South African savanna land-use gradient, quantifying the effects of land-use change on patterns of mound densities, heights and spatial patterning. Despite significant anthropogenic alteration to landscapes, termite mounds persisted and shared a number of similarities to mounds in untransformed areas. Mean mound height was not substantially reduced in transformed landscapes, and over-dispersion of mounds at localized scales was conserved. However, mound densities were partially reduced, and height distributions in transformed areas differed to those in protected areas. Our findings suggest that mound-building termites persist even in areas of relatively high human disturbance, but also highlight important differences in termite distributions that could lead to reductions in ecosystem services provided by termites in human-modified landscapes. The persistence of at least half of mounds in human-modified landscapes could serve as starting points for savanna restoration.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number094038
JournalEnvironmental Research Letters
Issue number9
StatePublished - Sep 2020


  • Convolutional neural networks
  • Deep learning
  • LiDAR
  • Macrotermes
  • Savanna
  • South Africa
  • Termite mounds

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Renewable Energy, Sustainability and the Environment
  • General Environmental Science
  • Public Health, Environmental and Occupational Health


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