Zootermopsis soldier termite, jaws at the ready.

If you think of termites as pasty white squishy things, here’s one that’ll jar your preconceptions. Zootermopsis dampwood termites of western North America have large soldiers- over a centimeter long- that are muscular and well armored.

Soldiers are deployed not against predators but against other termites, as colonies within a single rotting log fight when they encounter each other. Those jaws are ideal for slicing through an enemy queen, for example, or for protecting their own.

Photo details: Canon mp-e 65mm 1-5x macro lens on a Canon EOS D60
ISO 100, f13, 1/200 sec, diffused flash

11 thoughts on “Zootermopsis”

  1. Very nice image!

    I encountered these often as a kid in San Jose, California, when poking around in the woods. After warm, late winter rains, the winged ones, nearly an inch long from mandible tips to wing tips, would appear.

    I wonder now how far they flew, as there were no forests with their preferred moist, rotten logs near the school yard or my home where I saw them. To my knowledge, these do not invade structures, but maybe Gordon knows otherwise.

  2. I really need to find a colony of these things… they have some pretty awesome gut endosymbionts! Only managed to catch the winged ones, although those are full of protists anyway. But having your ‘own’ colony would be nice! ^^

    1. Try contacting people who have them in their labs (hint: one of them is a former advisor of mine, Juergen Liebig). Maybe they’ll give you some. I can tell you that we collected many colonies in the Monterey Peninsula forests, but you need a permit to enter, as it is mostly privately owned by some Golf course.

    2. They are pretty easy to start up as a colony, in my experience. I started with about 20 individuals and I now have a colony that is(probably, even though it doesnt look it in the pic) well over 200 individuals.

      The hole in the center of this plank started out at 1″ across, for reference the visible soldier is just under 3/4″.


      Mine were collected on Ortega Hwy when some tree clearing crews were headed through and allowed me to rescue a few. =)

  3. Saying of “enemy queens”… do some termites invade other termite colonies and live as inquilines in the nest (like Teleutomyrmex) or kill the resident queens (like some Lasius)? Are there slave-making termites?

    And another question: So, if soldiers like the one in the picture are only used against other termites, then what do they do if they’re attacked by a bear or a raiding ant party? And with speicalized jaws like those, how do termite soldiers even eat?

    1. JasonC,

      Those large, aggressive and specialized mandibles disallow feeding without assistance from nest-mates (workers/pseudergates). Obviously, this is an energy drain on the colony, but the trade-off is the colony defense that they provide.

Leave a Reply