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Two termite functional classifications (Abe's lifetypes and Donovan's feeding groups) are evaluated, and then synthesized to make a single unified ‘lifeway’ matrix classification with eight categories. The systematics and biogeography of the lifeway groups are outlined. The lifeways are then tested against other relevant data on termite ecology (stable isotopes, molecular probes, survey data) to show that they consistently reflect real distinctions in termite biology. The advantages and disadvantages of each lifeway are discussed in the context of energy availability, nitrogen balance, foraging and nest-building energetics, and biogeographical dispersal ability. Finally, an ecological evolutionary scheme is outlined for the global ecology of termites using the lifeway classification as a framework.