, Volume 191, Issue 3, pp 541–553 | Cite as

Nest composition, stable isotope ratios and microbiota unravel the feeding behaviour of an inquiline termite

  • Simon HellemansEmail author
  • Martyna Marynowska
  • Thomas Drouet
  • Gilles Lepoint
  • Denis Fournier
  • Magdalena Calusinska
  • Yves Roisin
Behavioral ecology – original research


Termites are eusocial insects having evolved several feeding, nesting and reproductive strategies. Among them, inquiline termites live in a nest built by other termite species: some of them do not forage outside the nest, but feed on food stored by the host or on the nest material itself. In this study, we characterized some dimensions of the ecological niche of Cavitermes tuberosus (Termitidae: Termitinae), a broad-spectrum inquiline termite with a large neotropical distribution, to explain its ecological success. We used an integrative framework combining ecological measures (physico-chemical parameters, stable isotopic ratios of N and C) and Illumina MiSeq sequencing of 16S rRNA gene to identify bacterial communities and to analyse termites as well as the material from nests constructed by different termite hosts (the builders). Our results show that (1) nests inhabited by C. tuberosus display a different physico-chemical composition when compared to nests inhabited by its builder alone; (2) stable isotopic ratios suggest that C. tuberosus feeds on already processed, more humified, nest organic matter; and (3) the gut microbiomes cluster by termite species, with the one of C. tuberosus being much more diverse and highly similar to the one of its main host, Labiotermes labralis. These results support the hypothesis that C. tuberosus is a generalist nest feeder adapted to colonize nests built by various builders, and explain its ecological success.


Isoptera Termitidae Cavitermes tuberosus Humivorous Neotropical Nitrogen Nest 



We are grateful to the late Philippe Cerdan, to Régis Vigouroux and the staff of the Laboratoire Environnement HYDRECO of Petit Saut (EDF-CNEH) for logistic support during field work. We thank Xavier Goux and Nicolas Kaczmarek for their help in the field, and Alexandre Van Baekel for assistance during ICP-OES measurements.

Author contribution statement

SH and YR designed the study. SH, MM, DF, and YR collected the material. SH and TD performed soil analyses; SH and GL performed isotopic analyses; and MM and MC performed Illumina sequencing and subsequent analyses. All authors contributed significantly to the manuscript and approved the final version.


This work was supported by the Belgian National Fund for Scientific Research F.R.S.-FNRS (PhD fellowship to SH and Grant PDR T.0065.15 to YR) and by the Luxembourg National Research Fund through an FNR 2014 CORE project (OPTILYS; Exploring the higher termite lignocellulolytic system to optimize the conversion of biomass into energy and useful platform molecules/C14/SR/8286517). GL and DF are appointed as Research Associates for the F.R.S.-FNRS.

Compliance with ethical standards

Conflict of interest

We declare we have no competing interests.

Data archiving

Sequences produced for this study have been deposited in GenBank repository under Project accession KBWO01000000 (see details in Supplementary Table S2).

Supplementary material

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Supplementary material 1 (PDF 1 kb)
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Supplementary material 2 (XLSX 34 kb)
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Supplementary material 3 (XLSX 1419 kb)


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© Springer-Verlag GmbH Germany, part of Springer Nature 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Evolutionary Biology and EcologyUniversité Libre de BruxellesBrusselsBelgium
  2. 2.Environmental Research and Innovation DepartmentLuxembourg Institute of Science and TechnologyBelvauxLuxembourg
  3. 3.Laboratoire d’Écologie Végétale et BiogéochimieUniversité Libre de BruxellesBrusselsBelgium
  4. 4.Laboratory of Oceanology-MAREUniversity of LiègeLiègeBelgium

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