Peer reviewed paper series
Dangerfield, J. M. (1990). The distribution and abundance of Cubitermes sankurensis (Wassmann) (Isoptera; Termitidae) within a Miombo woodland site in Zimbabwe. African Journal of Ecology, 28(1), 15–20.
Early in 1987 all efforts to finish my doctoral thesis seemed fruitless. The data were in and the structure agreed with an array of supervisors delivering comments and instructions all taken on board. I recall that the first few chapters were written and re-written any number of times before they were deemed satisfactory. The process was rigorous and arduous as each chapter was given painful birth. I was over it.
A choice was needed to fight or flee the adversity. Such moments happen to everyone at points in their lives. I don’t recall the exact day but the decision happened to cease prevarication, lose the perfectionism excuses, and push the thing over the line. It worked. Within a couple of months my thesis was submitted for approval and for the first time I realised what can be done when the brain actually pays true attention to a task.
Much later I also found out that you couldn’t force this focus. It comes on its own when it’s good and ready. Uncannily, but only if you let it, focus arrives in plenty of time to meet deadlines.
The problem with the burst of energy on my thesis was that I finished it. Now it was time to find something to do with all the education.
The Natural History Museum in South Kensington is a true wonder. It has some startling public galleries with homages to the Victorians who established and built its edifices and its reputation. You can feel very small standing beneath the blue whale skeleton and minuscule in front of the marble statue of Charles Darwin.
What the public don’t see and very few visitors will know is that the building also houses biological specimens from every corner of the globe. These vast collections are all immaculately curated and stored in thousands of drawers and jars in rooms that smell of naphthalene. This wealth of biodiversity is the raw material for systematics, the branch of biology that deals with classification and nomenclature.
Among these many specimens are termites.
For a week in the late summer of that thesis year my eyes were glued to a microscope trying to find the teeth on the left mandible of major soldiers. Thanks to an uncanny alignment of the stars my immediate future was to be as a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Zimbabwe, the opportunity of a lifetime. And what else could a soil ecologist study in Africa than termites. They have, after all, eaten the continents architectural heritage and ruined any number of crops.
So here in the corridors that the public don’t see, I was doing my homework, cramming for a taxonomy test like no other and, thankfully, meeting some taxonomists who would be a huge help when it mattered.
My focus was the fungus growing species, the Macrotermes, whose soldiers have mandibles big enough to be sutures on wounds and whose workers build mounds literally the size of a house. So it was inevitable that the first research was on the soil feeding species Cubitermes sankurensis that was not on my homework list and builds soccer ball sized homes.
‘The distribution and abundance of Cubitermes sankurensis (Wassmann) (Isoptera; Termitidae) within a Miombo woodland site in Zimbabwe’ is not the most erudite contribution to ecological science ever made. In fact, it is a huge surprise that it was published at all.
A few mounds were mapped and the number of termites estimated by correlating mound dimension with the number of termites counted in soil cores taken from a sample of mounds. Around 1,000 termites per square meter, the numbers said but what this actually meant it was hard to say. There was no evidence at all really.
It is hard to know how many peer-reviewed papers are like this one. Nothing obviously wrong and yet little, if any, knowledge gained.
There were plenty more termite mounds to measure and later work produced more useful information than no obvious pattern between vegetation structure and the distribution of termite mounds.
By the way, for those sharp-eyed naturalists the header image is, of course, not Cubitermes but a species of Odontotermes, a fungus growing genus, that needs the wide vents to keep the fungus garden moist.