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Termites Are Moving in With Cockroaches, Taxonomically

The wood-munching critters are technically just social roaches

(Wikimedia Commons)
smithsonian.com

A new study confirms what bug haters and the Orkin man have always suspected: cockroaches and termites belong together. As Susan Milius at Science News reports, the Entomological Society of America (ESA) recently updated the termite’s taxonomy, merging the families of their order Isoptera with those of the cockroach order Blattodea.

As Milius reports, the change has been a long time coming. As far back as 1934 researchers noticed that the specialized microbes in the guts of termites are also present in the guts of some cockroaches. Decades later, DNA analysis suggested that termites belonged to a branch of the cockroach family tree. That was confirmed in a 2007 paper which suggested termites be lumped with the cockroaches near a group of roaches called Cryptocercus, which tunnel into wood.

The move is supported by a new study published in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolutionwhich confirms the lineage and defines termites as “eusocial cockroaches.” As Coby Schal, entomologist at North Carolina State University, explains in a press release, extensive DNA sequencing suggests that termites split from cockroaches 150 million years ago, roughly 50 million years before highly social species like ants, bees and wasps. Unlike cockroaches, which are usually solitary creatures with an omnivorous diet, the termite evolved a highly stratified social structure, including a king and queen, workers and soldiers. It also evolved to subsist on one food: wood.

So why did it take 11 years for entomologists to officially make the switch? Whitney Cranshaw of Colorado State University, a member of the ESA’s naming committee says some people were resistant to the move. “Probably some of us, including myself, didn’t want to make the change because we liked it the way it was,” he says. However, he voted for the change in the end. “It’s what’s right,” he says.

Another sticking point was that 2007 paper, which suggested a complete overhaul of the family tree. “What ESA did is update the taxonomic position the right way, by merging Isoptera within Blattodea, but keeping the termites families intact,” Thomas Chouvenc, a entomologist at the University of Florida tells George Dvorsky at Gizmodo. “The initial 2007 [paper] wrongly suggested to downgrade all families in subfamilies, and place everything into a new ‘termitidae’ family—despite the existence of an already existing Termitidae—which would have resulted in more confusion than anything else. Because of this confusion, it took so long.”

So do we now have to start referring to termites as cockroaches? Milius says not to worry, termites will keep their common names. “Technically all termites are ‘wood feeding eusocial roaches,’ but not all cockroaches are termites,” Chouvenc says. “If you have a termite infestation in your house, but the pest control company comes and says ‘you have cockroaches in your house,’ how confusing would this be? For common use, termite will remain termite.”

Cockroaches will still be referred to by their common names as well, which are too foul to publish.

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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