Hybrid Super-Termites Could Emerge From Interspecies Swarms

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Two economically devastating species of invasive termite have joined forces in a "superswarm," and may spawn a dangerously vigorous generation of hybrid insects, researchers warn. University of Florida entomologist Nan-Yao Su and other scientists have observed Formosan and Asian subterranean termites swarming simultaneously, a situation that may end in cohabitation and interspecies mating. Each termite is destructive on its own, burrowing under structures and crops, but colonies of hybrids observed in a lab environment grew twices as quickly as single-species ones.

An interspecies colony, with Asian and Formosan adult termites with hybrid young.
An interspecies colony, with Asian and Formosan adult termites with hybrid young.Thomas Chouvenc / University of Florida / IFAS

Hybrids between similar species can be hardy, like mules, which are a cross between horses and donkeys, but they can also be sterile. It's not yet known whether the Formosan-Asian termites could produce young, but even if they didn't, a generation of extra-sturdy invasive hybrids could further increase the estimated $40 billion cost associated with termite-related damage and prevention.

At least their range is likely to be limited to tropical areas — unless the hybrid super-termites bear the heat better than their parents. The research appeared Wednesday in the open-access journal PLOS One.

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-Devin Coldewey, NBC News

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