Species That Predate Termites

At last count, there were more than 2,000 species of termites worldwide. There are about 50 species in the United States. Termites are known for eating wood, but they also eat paper, cardboard, and several plant fibers, like cotton. In some places, termites even eat grass.

Scientists think that termites have been around for more than 200 million years. They suspect that there is a prehistoric link between termites and cockroaches. They point to several living insects that seem to combine some of the characteristics of termites and cockroaches

The Brown–hooded cockroach, Cryptocercus punctulatus, is a native of North America. Scientists have found that this wood–eating cockroach is more similar to termites than it is to other roaches.

In Australia, the Giant Northern termite, Mastotermes darwiniensis, seems to be a living link between termites and cockroaches. This insect seems to have the abdomen of a cockroach attached to the head and mid–section of a termite.

The Mastotermes darwiniensis produces its eggs in batches like cockroaches do. All of the other termites produce their eggs one–at–a–time.

This termite is the only living insect that folds its wings in a convex pattern. Scientists found a fossil that had a similar wing structure. Scientists believe that the fossil, Pycnoblattina, is from the Permian period. Scientists also suspect that insects began to eat wood, leaves, and other cellulose materials during the Permian period.

Scientists also point to the Australian wood roach, Panesthia australis, as evidence of an early link between roaches and termites. This cockroach lives on the forest floor. It makes shallow burrows under decaying logs.

The Australian wood roach lives in family groups. It eats wood and tunnels through decaying logs. When the roaches become adults, they bite their wings off. This seems to make it easier for them to tunnel through the wood.

Scientists suspect that this behavior might be the origin of termites living in colonies and removing their wings in order to tunnel into wood.