Ecological Drivers of Species Distributions and Niche Overlap for Three Subterranean Termite Species in the Southern Appalachian Mountains, USA
Department of Biology, University of Mississippi, University, MS 38677, USA
Author to whom correspondence should be addressed.
Insects 2019, 10(1), 33; https://doi.org/10.3390/insects10010033
Received: 1 December 2018 / Revised: 16 January 2019 / Accepted: 17 January 2019 / Published: 21 January 2019
In both managed and unmanaged forests, termites are functionally important members of the dead-wood-associated (saproxylic) insect community. However, little is known about regional-scale environmental drivers of geographic distributions of termite species, and how these environmental factors impact co-occurrence among congeneric species. Here we focus on the southern Appalachian Mountains—a well-known center of endemism for forest biota—and use Ecological Niche Modeling (ENM) to examine the distributions of three species of Reticulitermes termites (i.e., R. flavipes, R. virginicus, and R. malletei). To overcome deficiencies in public databases, ENMs were underpinned by field-collected high-resolution occurrence records coupled with molecular taxonomic species identification. Spatial overlap among areas of predicted occurrence of each species was mapped, and aspects of niche similarity were quantified. We also identified environmental factors that most strongly contribute to among-species differences in occupancy. Overall, we found that R. flavipes and R. virginicus showed significant niche divergence, which was primarily driven by summer temperature. Also, all three species were most likely to co-occur in the mid-latitudes of the study area (i.e., northern Alabama and Georgia, eastern Tennessee and western North Carolina), which is an area of considerable topographic complexity. This work provides important baseline information for follow-up studies of local-scale drivers of these species’ distributions. It also identifies specific geographic areas where future assessments of the frequency of true syntopy vs. micro-allopatry, and associated interspecific competitive interactions, should be focused.