Termite mounds built by representatives of the family Termitidae are among the most spectacular constructions in the animal kingdom, reaching 6–8 m in height and housing millions of individuals. Although functional aspects of these structures are well studied, their evolutionary origins remain poorly understood. Australian representatives of the termitid subfamily Nasutitermitinae display a wide variety of nesting habits, making them an ideal group for investigating the evolution of mound building. Because they feed on a variety of substrates, they also provide an opportunity to illuminate the evolution of termite diets. Here, we investigate the evolution of termitid mound building and diet, through a comprehensive molecular phylogenetic analysis of Australian Nasutitermitinae. Molecular dating analysis indicates that the subfamily has colonized Australia on three occasions over the past approximately 20 Myr. Ancestral-state reconstruction showed that mound building arose on multiple occasions and from diverse ancestral nesting habits, including arboreal and wood or soil nesting. Grass feeding appears to have evolved from wood feeding via ancestors that fed on both wood and leaf litter. Our results underscore the adaptability of termites to ancient environmental change, and provide novel examples of parallel evolution of extended phenotypes.
Electronic supplementary material is available online at https://dx.doi.org/10.6084/m9.figshare.c.3685567.
- Received August 12, 2016.
- Accepted January 27, 2017.
- © 2017 The Author(s)
Published by the Royal Society. All rights reserved.