As climate change encroaches on already arid ecosystems, the threat of drought and eventual desertification is very real. China's north and Sahelian Africa, for instance, have both created "Great Green Walls" of trees and bushes to keep the desert at bay. Now new research suggests that termites, of all things, can also help.

That's at least according to a study recently published in the journal Science, which details how these normally troublesome pests slow the spread of deserts into drylands by providing a moist refuge for vegetation on and around their mounds.

That's because these mounds store nutrients and moisture via internal tunnels, allowing what sparse water there is to better penetrate the soil - a boon particularly in Africa, where even the establishment of its latest Great Green Wall (nearly 4,400 miles across) has proven no small feat in the arid clime between the Sahara Desert and the Sudanian Savanna.

What's more, the researchers found that not only did vegetation grow more easily around the mounds, but it also recovered from periods of hard drought more easily, as the mounds keep dormant seeds protected.

"Even when you get to harsh conditions where vegetation disappears from the mounds, re-vegetation is still easier," co-author Cornia Tarnita explained in a statement. "As long as the mounds are there the ecosystem has a better chance to recover." (Scroll to read on...)

And if termites can help keep the desert at bay, co-author Robert Pringle, an ecologist and evolutionary biologist at Princeton, argues that other mound builders like ants, prairie dogs and gophers could similarly help.

"Exactly what each type of animal does for vegetation is hard to know in advance," he said. "You'd have to get into a system and determine what is building the mounds and what the properties of the mounds are."

Pringle and his colleagues "got into" the termite mounds for this latest study after taking several measurements and running a number of mathematical scenarios. This allowed them to assess how the presence or absence of termites affected the rate of desertification over time. Still, it should be noted that performing this kind of work for other species would take a significant amount of time and work.

"This study demonstrates that termite mounds create important refugia for plants and help to protect vast landscapes in Africa from the effects of drought," added Doug Levey, program director in the National Science Foundation's Division of Environmental Biology, which funded the work. "Clearly, not all termites are pests."

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