termite or white ant, common name for a soft-bodied social insect of the infraorder Isoptera. Originally classified in as a separate order, termites are genetically related to cockroaches and are now classified with them in the order Blattodea. Termites are easily distinguished from ants by comparison of the base of the abdomen, which is broadly joined to the thorax in termites; in ants, there is only a slender connection (petiole) joining these segments. In addition, the antennae of termites are beadlike or threadlike, while ant antennae are elbowed. Termites have chewing mouthparts. They feed chiefly on wood, from which they obtain cellulose. In primitive species cellulose is converted into various sugars by specialized gut protozoans and in the more highly evolved termites by specialized bacteria living symbiotically in the termite's digestive tract. Termites undergo gradual metamorphosis (see insect). The nearly 2,000 species are mostly tropical, and some build huge mounds to house their colonies. These mounds, up to 40 ft (12.2 m) high, are a characteristic feature of the landscape in parts of Africa and Australia.
Sections in this article:
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2023, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.
See more Encyclopedia articles on: Zoology: Invertebrates