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A novel genetic group of Macrotermes termites in Ongava

Updated: Mar 11

Macrotermes termites have a symbiotic relationship with Basidiomycetes fungi and play important ecological roles as soil conditioners in Africa and Asia. The African continent is home to 13 Macrotermes species, which are often consumed for their nutritional and traditional medicinal value in southern Africa.

Macrotermes soldiers representative of some of the genetic groups found in Botswana (A), South Africa (B&C) and Namibia (D).

Different species of Macrotermes are difficult to identify morphologically. This has hampered ecological and food science studies on these termites. In 2021, a research collaboration between the Ongava Research Centre and Stellenbosch University, reported the first DNA data for Macrotermes in Namibia. We sampled 82 Macrotermes termitaria on Ongava between March and May of 2021. The DNA of a specimen from each mound was then sequenced and compared to sequences publicly available for African Macrotermes.

We found that Macrotermes in Ongava have low genetic diversity, as 98% of the sampled colonies shared the same maternal genotype. The Macrotermes from Ongava were also found to cluster with specimens from northern Botswana, and together probably represent a new genetic group in one species. The sequences for Macrotermes from Ongava and Botswana were also most similar to sequences classified as Macrotermes michaelseni from Kenya.

While this study provided the first DNA sequence data for Macrotermes in Namibia a large proportion of the country and other parts of southern Africa are yet to be surveyed. The diversity of these termites remains poorly described and additional sequence data generated in future studies may challenge the findings presented here. Inconsistencies between termite morphological identification and their genetic diversity highlight the need for the revaluation of African Macrotermes taxonomy and identification keys.

You can read more details about our study in the post below.

Termite genetics
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Author: Kayla Tromp, Bsc Hons Student, Stellenbosch University.