You Should Feel Lucky That You Don’t Eat Like Termites
We all know that termites eat and digest wood and other forms of dead plant life that contain cellulose. For the vast majority of animals, humans included, cellulose cannot be broken down during digestion; instead, the cellulose will go right through us. This is why termites are able to perform a much needed service to the natural environment. After all, which other animal can clear millions of pieces of dead vegetation from perfectly arable land. Although termites often feed on timber-framed homes, we all know that a termite’s appetite is well satisfied with acres of dead plant life. However, most people are unfamiliar with the process of termite digestion. There are well over one thousand different species of termites on the planet, and many termites digest cellulose in the same way. If you have a weak stomach then some of the following information may gross you out.
Eating wood is not an easy task. It is the cellulose in wood that is particularly hard to digest, let alone chew. Cellulose is a polymer that gives plants their strong and firm cell walls. Termites are special insects in that they possess three different digestive symbionts that assist in the process of cellulose breakdown. These three symbionts include a bacteria, an archae-bacteria, and flagellate protozoans.
The mouthparts of a termite do very little chewing; instead a piece of wood will travel from the mouthparts to a gizzard-like feature that contains many teeth. This gizzard grinds wood with a collection of sharp internal teeth. From there the pulverized wood moves to the midgut where enzymes break down sugars for the termite’s absorption. Once the material reaches the hindgut the cellulose fibers are still mostly intact. The three symbionts within the hindgut break down the cellulose to provide nutrients for the termite and for themselves, as symbionts are also organisms that must feed.
Once the cellulose is discarded as waste, it still contains significant amounts of nutrients. This is why termites often feed on the digested material of other termites within their colony. Termite waste can pass through a single termite several times. Termites often don’t waste any time finding nutrients, as they often resort to “proctodeal trophallaxis”, which you may or may not want to Google.
Have you ever heard of termites digesting cellulose in a manner that required the growth of fungus?