Florida entomologists have observed two of the world's most destructive termite species swarming at the same time in South Florida, resulting in colonies of hybrid termites that grow fast and could spread beyond the sunshine state.
The two species, Asian and Formosan subterranean termites, are the subjects of a new paper just published in the journal PLOS ONE by a team of University of Florida researchers.
Before 2013 and 2014, the study's authors say, the two species had never swarmed simultaneously in South Florida. But now, with their dispersal flight seasons overlapping, the termites have had a chance to mix and mingle. And, to make matters worse, the male Asian termite seems to actually prefer the Formosan female.
The result? A hybrid in a hurry.
"This is worrisome, as the combination of genes between the two species results in highly vigorous hybridized colonies that can develop twice as fast as the two parental species," said Thomas Chouvenc, one of the team's researchers.
On their own, the parent Asian and Formosan species are responsible for a big chunk of the world's $40 billion in annual termite damage.
A hybrid could be even more destructive.
"The establishment of hybrid termite populations is expected to result in dramatically increased damage to structures in the near future," Chouvenc warned.
The researchers have yet to determine whether the hybrid termites from this union are fertile or sterile, but team lead Nan-Yao Su, an entomology professor at the University of Florida's Fort Lauderdale Research and Education Center, said the situation is still a dangerous one.
"Because a termite colony can live up to 20 years with millions of individuals," Su said, "the damaging potential of a hybrid colony remains a serious threat to homeowners, even if the hybrid colony does not produce fertile winged termites."
"This is especially true when the colony exhibits hybrid vigor, as we witnessed in the laboratory," added Su. (Hybrid vigor occurs when hybrid offspring have qualities that outperform their purebred parents.)
Floridians may not be the only ones who find themselves having to deal with this new threat to structural integrity. Both the Formosan and Asian termites have had no difficulty spreading to many parts of the world, and Chouvenc warned that if the hybrid colonies can produce plenty of winged, fertile offspring, then they too could take their act on the road.
"Right now, we barely see the tip of the iceberg," Su said. "But we know it's a big one."