Nitrogen mineralization, ammonia accumulation, and emission of gaseous NH3 by soil-feeding termites

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There are numerous reports on the accumulation of ammonia in the mounds of soil-feeding termites. Here, we provided direct evidence for an effective mineralization of nitrogenous soil organic matter in the gut of Cubitermes spp., which gives rise to enormous ammonia concentrations in the intestinal tract. In Cubitermes ugandensis, the ammonia content of the nest material [24.5 μmol (g dry wt.)−1] was about 300-fold higher than that of the parent soil. Large amounts of ammonia were present throughout the intestinal tract, with lowest values in the extremely alkaline gut sections (pH >12) and highest values posterior hindgut [185 μmol (g dry wt.)−1]. Results obtained with other Cubitermes species were similar. Ammonia concentrations in the posterior hindgut of these humivorous species (up to 130 mM) are among the highest values ever reported for soil macroinvertebrates and are matched only by insects feeding on an extremely protein-rich diet (e.g., the sarcophageous larvae of blowflies). Volatilization of ammonia [about 10 nmol (g fresh wt.)−1 h−1], either directly by emission from the termite body or indirectly from their feces, led to NH3 concentrations in the nest atmosphere of C. ugandensis that were three orders of magnitude above the ambient background - a relative accumulation that is considerably higher than that observed with CH4 and CO2. Together with previous results, these observations document that through their feeding activity and due to the physicochemical and biochemical properties of their digestive system, soil-feeding termites effectively catalyze the transformation of refractory soil organic nitrogen to a plant-available form that is protected from leaching by adsorption to the nest soil. Nitrogen mineralization rates of soil-feeding termites may surpass those effected by tropical earthworms and should contribute significantly to nitrogen fluxes in tropical ecosystems.

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