Termites (traditionally Isoptera; Blattodea: Termitoidae) are a small insect group with around 3000 formally recognized species. “Lower” termites harbour the basal families Mastotermitidae, Archotermopsidae, Stolotermitidae, Hodotermitidae, Kalotermitidae, Stylotermitidae, Serritermitidae and Rhinotermitidae, while “higher” termites correspond to the family Termitidae. Termites are an inner group of cockroaches (Blattodea), with woodroach Cryptocercus as a sister group, referred to as epifamily Termitoidae.
Termites are decomposers of prime importance, and gain the energy from decomposition of a broad spectrum of plant materials, from living tissues (microepiphytes, mycelia), freshly dead (sound wood, leaf litter) and decayed (wood, upper layer of soil) to highly mineralised soil material without discernible structure. These materials are very common in all forest types, but there are relatively few animal groups that are able to consume them.
Termites are ecosystem engineers in tropical forests. By recycling essential nutrients from the soil they provide many other ecological services. Termites increase the ecosystem heterogeneity by moving tons of material per hectare annually, modifying soil topography, structural and chemical properties, constructing large mounds and extensive systems of subterranean galleries, and having a positive effect on plant growth. Termites are undoubtedly the most important group of decomposers, and their impact on ecosystems is fundamental from the global perspective. They also belong to the best studied taxa and due to their importance they are model organisms in many research areas, including decomposition of recalcitrant plant polymers (cellulose and lignin), symbiotic associations, methane production, production of biofuels etc.