Termites can be hard to identify, both in your floorboards and in the lab. But finding two new species of them might not be all bad news!

By combining physical characteristics with DNA evidence, we have discovered and described two new, unusually small species of Australian termite.

I’ll admit that termites have a pretty bad reputation and very few people would be pleased to find them in their house. So why then should we be excited, rather than horrified, to find out there are even more termite species than we thought?

Firstly, you should relax. These new termite species, in fact most termite species, don’t attack houses. Some of them don’t even eat wood, preferring instead to harvest grass. Far from being always destructive, termites can even have a positive impact in their ecosystem. Termites are good at processing dead wood and their tunnels can help to aerate the soil, meaning they can even be beneficial to agriculture.

'micro' termites
Soldiers from three different termite species: Coptotermes lacteus (bottom), Coptotermes cooloola (new species, middle) and Coptotermes lacteus (new species, top). The small size of the new species is evident here. Image: Tim Lee & Anna Namyatova
© Australian Museum

The two new species that we have recently described come from the Kimberley region of Western Australia and in and around the Great Sandy National Park in South East Queensland. They are striking because they are so small, only a bit over half the size of their closest relatives.

In this microscope image, you can see three termite soldiers. The bottom one is Coptotermes lacteus, a well-known termite species found mainly in the Great Dividing Range in NSW, QLD and VIC. Above are the two new species, Coptotermes nanus (top) and Coptotermes cooloola (middle). Coptotermes lacteus is already small for a termite, so these new ones are very small indeed.

Their small size gave us a good indication that these termites were a new species, however, it can still be hard to tell termite species apart. This is partly because of their highly specialised lifestyle. Termite workers are usually eye-less, all white, and have shrunken, non-functional reproductive parts, so many of the features that might help us to tell species apart in other insects are not useful here.

This is where DNA evidence comes in. While in decades past, new species were discovered solely based on their physical appearance, now we can use DNA evidence too to help us to tell similar-looking organisms apart. In showing that these termites are new species, we used both physical evidence and DNA evidence, and we think that this will become an increasingly common method when new species are described. The Australian Museum’s collection will keep the specimens we used in its collection permanently, to help any investigators studying these insects in the future.

So even though there might be more Australian termite species than we thought, it isn’t any cause for alarm. Rather, these new descriptions show just how useful DNA can be in discovering new organisms, and add to our knowledge of Australia’s unique biota.

Tim Lee, Entomology Scientific Officer

More information:

  • Lee, T. R. C., Evans, T. A., Cameron, S. L., Ho, S. Y. W., Namyatova, A., Lo, N. (2017) A review of the status of Coptotermes (Isoptera : Rhinotermitidae) species in Australia with the description of two new small termite species from Northern and Eastern Australia. Invertebrate Systematics 31(2): 180-190