Termites rely on organisms within their digestive system to digest wood. These organisms are called protozoa, and they are responsible for breaking down all the wood into digestible products such as simple sugars, acetic acid and other acid.

Cellulose Difficult to Digest

Cellulose is the most common naturally occurring compound found on earth. It’s composed of linked sugar molecules that form a chain-like pattern. Cellulose is actually a very durable compound, and thus, is difficult to digest – luckily, the protozoa in termites are one of the organisms that are able to digest it and break it down into something that is digestible for the termite.

Origins of Protozoa

When the protozoa digest the cellulose, they release acids, including acetic acid, that the host termite is able to metabolize. Termites started to produce the necessary bodily fluid containing the protozoa millions of years ago through an evolutionary need. This liquid is excreted when the termites defecate. When the freshly born termite larvae consume the adult termite feces they ingest the protozoa. The same process is used when termites molt and shed their exoskeleton to grow. When that happens they lose the protozoa that exists in their digestive system, so they must once again consume the feces of another termite to reintroduce the protozoa into their bodies.

Mutualism and How it Aids the Environment

The special symbiotic relationship that exists between termites and protozoa is called mutualism. But a special bond also exists between the termite and its environment. Though a termites ability to gnaw through cellulose is dangerous when its the wood in your structural supports, it’s a beneficial habit to the environment. Termites feed on the cellulose of dying trees – thus helping to clear away decayed plant matter so that new healthy trees can grow.


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