Top-down network analysis characterizes hidden termite–termite interactions

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The analysis of ecological networks is generally bottom-up, where networks are established by observing interactions between individuals. Emergent network properties have been indicated to reflect the dominant mode of interactions in communities that might be mutualistic (e.g., pollination) or antagonistic (e.g., host–parasitoid communities). Many ecological communities, however, comprise species interactions that are difficult to observe directly. Here, we propose that a comparison of the emergent properties from detail-rich reference communities with known modes of interaction can inform our understanding of detail-sparse focal communities. With this top-down approach, we consider patterns of coexistence between termite species that live as guests in mounds built by other host termite species as a case in point. Termite societies are extremely sensitive to perturbations, which precludes determining the nature of their interactions through direct observations. We perform a literature review to construct two networks representing termite mound cohabitation in a Brazilian savanna and in the tropical forest of Cameroon. We contrast the properties of these cohabitation networks with a total of 197 geographically diverse mutualistic plant–pollinator and antagonistic host–parasitoid networks. We analyze network properties for the networks, perform a principal components analysis (PCA), and compute the Mahalanobis distance of the termite networks to the cloud of mutualistic and antagonistic networks to assess the extent to which the termite networks overlap with the properties of the reference networks. Both termite networks overlap more closely with the mutualistic plant–pollinator communities than the antagonistic host–parasitoid communities, although the Brazilian community overlap with mutualistic communities is stronger. The analysis raises the hypothesis that termite–termite cohabitation networks may be overall mutualistic. More broadly, this work provides support for the argument that cryptic communities may be analyzed via comparison to well-characterized communities.




Campbell, C., Russo, L., Marins, A., DeSouza, O., Schönrogge, K., Mortensen, D., … Shea, K. (2016). Top-down network analysis characterizes hidden termite–termite interactions. Ecology and Evolution, 6(17), 6178–6188.

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