Termites in All-Female Hybrid Colonies Can Clone Themselves

Back in 2018, scientists discovered all-female termite colonies in Japan. It was a confounding find for the researchers, as, unlike species that live in same-sex colonies but require a male for reproductive purposes, there was not a male insect in sight. So how did these termites girlboss their way to the top? The same researchers from the University of Sydney who discovered the lady termite colonies, are back with some new findings. Specifically, on how the sans-male colonies exist—and their potential for termite domination. It turns out, this super termite situation is due to “unwitting human-assisted hybridization” and the fact that the termites can clone themselves.

The researchers published their findings in  Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. (We first saw this at Gizmodo.) In the paper, they explore how this particular species of termites, drywood termites—otherwise known as Glyptotermes nakajimai—came into existence. According to a press release from the University of Sydney, the human intervention occurred as humans introduced two different lineages of termite to one another, likely by boat. And as these two lineages proceeded to mate, they produced offspring. The offspring from this blended family ended up genetically diverse and quite robust, certainly more so than their predecessors. But that’s not all.

An all-female colony of drywood termites - these termites can clone themselves
University of Sydney

Arguably, more importantly, the termites in these all-female colonies can clone themselves. Even the non-mathematicians among us—including myself—can glean that this means the colony sizes can grow at double the rate. Just as one supports women’s rights, one must also support women’s wrongs. And while I applaud these efforts to shirk the patriarchy, things could be headed for a buggy disaster. The hybrid insects are rapidly heading towards outcompeting their non-hybrid brethren. And as research lead Nathan Lo indicated in a press release, that is not ideal in terms of future infestations should the hybrid colonies spread around the world.

“We already have a number of very damaging termite species here,” Lo said, of Australia. “However, our study highlights the importance of making sure termites from overseas are not permitted to establish themselves. If they were to hybridize with our local termites, it might lead to even nastier lineages of termites for homeowners to deal with.”

Oh! Certainly don’t love that. Although, it absolutely tracks that humans accidentally caused this mess in the first place and might have to deal with some gnarly consequences.

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