Protozoa and Termites Symbiotic Relationship

May 2, 2017 | Termite Information

This post features a lot of in-depth information about protozoa symbiosis and termites. After you read this information, you will have an understanding of how two species’ symbiosis functions, what protozoa is, and much more.


Termites cannot survive without cellulose. This is usually found in dead wood that termites will often chew. However, their gut has protozoa in it which termites depend on for providing them with the necessary enzymes needed to digest any wood that they eat. If protozoa were on the termite’s outside, they would die. This would result in the termite starving to death because it wouldn’t be able to digest any of the wood that it eats. Therefore, termites and protozoa are dependent on one another for their survival.

How This Symbiosis Works

A newborn termite gets protozoa by eating the feces of older termites which has protozoa in it. After all, the stomach of a termite is where protozoa reside and work to convert cellulose from the eaten wood into a digestible sugar. This sugar is what termites are able to absorb within their stomachs. Without it, they would die for sure. That is why termites are always known for inhabiting and eating wooded areas. But they must have the protozoa in their stomachs in order to digest cellulose which is in the wood. The protozoa allow them to absorb nutrients from the wood that are needed for their survival. Endosymbiotic protozoa and termites have a mutualistic relationship. It has been this way for at least 100 million years, since a termite that old was discovered in a piece of amber and it had protozoa still inside of it. The reason protozoa stay inside the termites’ stomachs is because they get their shelter and food in there.

High vs. Low Termites Symbiosis

There is a difference between higher termites and lower termites which have been discovered throughout numerous studies into the guts of termites. Lower termites contain numerous bacterial species inside of it in addition to the protozoa. Higher termites have a more extensive anatomy and just the bacteria without the protozoa. Both types of termites have enzymes and microbes within the hindgut of their bodies. This is the area where the majority of symbiosis takes place.

Higher and lower termites have archaea and bacteria in them. However, lower termites are the only ones that have cellulolytic flagellates. These flagellates have evolved within termites to the point where termites can now digest wood. Numerous experiments conducted have proven that lower termites would starve to death if they didn’t have protists. Spirochaetes are the primary microbiota in the hindguts of lower termites. These protozoa are not in the hindguts of higher termites like they are in lower termites. This means higher termites do not digest cellulose in the same way as lower termites. Instead, higher termites have different components in their guts which force them to have different diets.

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Certain higher termites have a fungus in their symbiosis. Bacteroidetes, Firmicutes, and Termitomyces excel with a diet rich in fungus. Then there are other kinds of higher termites which have diets that depend on cellulose and fibrobacteres and spirochaetes inside their guts. Some even have a gut that is anatomically evolved which has increased their hindgut’s compartmentalization and their anterior compartments’ alkalinity. It is likely that a high alkalinity level is what makes higher termites able to sustain lignin degradation.

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