A recent study suggests what termites and fungus eat locally effects global warming to a large extent.

Until now, it was considered that moisture and temperature were the major causes behind rotting of dead trees, controlling the amount of carbon content enveloped in forests. Researchers at Yale, the University of Central Florida and SUNY Buffalo State found termites and fungus more influential factors of the rotting.

Wood-rot rates strongly influence the amount of carbon in forests to make up for the carbon released to the atmosphere through sources such as fossil fuels. The rates can aid in the detection of potential climatic changes.

During the 13-month experiment at Yale, the University of Central Florida and SUNY Buffalo State, 160 blocks of pine tree wood were divided across five sub-regions of temperate forest in the eastern U.S., from Connecticut to northern Florida, in addition to a site at San Felasco State Park, Alachua County. When the research team measured the amount of wood lost whether to the consumption of fungi or termites, they found that the activity of termites, fungi and other decomposer organisms account for about three quarters of the variation in wood decomposition, climate factors accounting for the rest.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, behind wetlands, termites are the second largest natural source of methane emissions, a significant greenhouse gas.

“But termite gas pales in comparison to cows and fossil fuels,” said Joshua King, a biologist at UCF. “It’s pretty obvious that they’re producing a fair amount but we don’t really have good numbers to quantify what they’re methane production is.”

The research team recommends collecting more data at local sites to improve the understanding of how local conditions affect the organisms that drive decomposition. The scientists suggest focusing more on the variability found across data collected from many different sites, instead of just averaging it all together.

“The big surprise of this work was the realization that the impact of organisms surpassed climate as a control of decomposition across spatial scales,” said King. “Understanding the ecology and biology of fungi and termites is a key to understanding how the rate of decomposition will vary from place to place.”

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