All Hail the King (of the Termites)

In rags-to-riches style, the first termites evolved from cockroaches. Why they became so cooperative is a bit of a puzzle. Ants, bees and wasps have a genetic system that makes the females in a family more closely related than usual; this may be part of why queen-led colonies evolved several times in these insects. But a termite colony is no more related than a human family (at least until the inbreeding starts). Whatever led them to evolve coed, cooperative societies, Dr. Vargo said, it happened only once in history.

Today they have expanded into about 2,600 highly cooperative species. “Termites are amazing, and super important in their native habitats for decomposition and recycling of nutrients,” Dr. Thorne said. But our interactions with those societies are mostly negative since, she said, “We build our houses out of termite food.”

The termite monarchy also offers a window into the science of longevity. Like ant, bee or wasp queens, termite royals can live substantially longer than their subjects. Workers may live a few months, while termite royals have survived 20 years in laboratories.

Eisuke Tasaki, a biologist at Niigata University in Japan, said termite kings have a distinctive set of molecular tools that slow their aging, such as more active genes for DNA repair.

“Unraveling the molecular mechanisms of termite king longevity may shed light on the mysteries of life span regulation in male individuals” in all animals, Dr. Tasaki said.

Long live the king, indeed!

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