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Termite predators

From Tropical Topics newsletter, no. 64 December 2000, produced by Stella Martin from the Environmental Protection Agency. Download the PDF to read the whole issue.

Echidnas use their claws to break down termite mounds then lap up the insects with their tongues

Echidnas use their strong claws to break into termite mounds then lap up the insects with their toungues

Termite nests are an important source of food for many animals in the dry tropics. The emergence of winged termites, the potential kings and queens, from their mounds, provides a feast for a number of animals, including birds, lizards, snakes, frogs, ants and other insects . The sheer numbers of winged termites released at these times are probably necessary to ensure that some survive the hungry mouths.

Ants, pictured here, are termites worst enemy

Ants are termites’ worst enemies. However from the ants’ point of view, termites represent a major source of food, allowing the Top End savannas to support one of the richest and most abundant ant faunas in the world. They even move into termite mounds, using them as a home. The termite soldiers fight bravely against this invasion, but often lose the battle. Nevertheless, the termites are able to seal off at least part of the nest, affording their colony some protection.

One species of reduvid, or assassin bug, is a termite predator. These insects are able to pierce the walls of termite tunnels with specialised elongated mouthparts and suck in their prey.

Termites form an important part of the diet of various small carnivorous marsupials like dunnarts. Numbats, which live in south-west WA, depend almost entirely on termites for food. Using their strong sense of smell to locate their food, they dig up galleries in the soil and in dead branches but are unable to break into mounds.

Frill-necked lizards feed largely on termites. Geckos, legless lizards and skinks also benefit from this abundant food source. Indeed, it is thought that termites may be largely responsible for the great diversity and abundance of lizards in arid parts of Australia.

A number of blind snakes — burrowing, worm-like snakes — are commonly found under termite mounds or below termite inhabited wood where they feast on their favourite food.

Termites are also eaten by the golden bandicoot, found in north-west WA and by bilbies. The entrances of a bilby tunnel are often found next to a termite mound.

Echidnas feed on termites as well as on ants. They use their strong claws to break into mounds and then lap up the insects with long tongues, covered with sticky saliva. These are then ground down between a horny pad at the back of the tongue and a hard palate before being swallowed.