Termites likely evolved from cockroaches

The results suggest termites are 35 million years older than the oldest known fossils. (Credit: Gregory Han/Flickr)

Scientists have discovered termites evolved from cockroaches 170 million years ago, probably in Africa or Asia.

Termites evolved from cockroaches by acquiring the ability to digest cellulose, the main compound in plant cell walls (and wood), and the most abundant organic molecule on Earth.

This ability helped them become one of the most abundant insect groups. Yet when and where they evolved is not well understood.

A team lead by Professor Theodore Evans from the biological sciences department at National University of Singapore has used sequences of mitochondrial genomes from 48 termite species from all termite families and subfamilies from around the world and to determine the timing and locations of major steps in termite evolution.

The team created the most robust phylogenetic (family) tree for termites to date, showing that termites split from cockroaches about 170 million years ago in the mid-Jurassic period. That’s when Pangea, the ancient single continent, was in the process of breaking up.

The results suggest termites are 35 million years older than the oldest known fossils.

The team also determined that the most derived and largest family, the Termitidae, evolved about 54 million years ago, most likely in Africa when it was an island (but possibly in Southeast Asia).

As most subfamilies in the Termitidae have pantropical distributions, these termites are likely to have dispersed over oceans in floating logs. It is likely most primitive species survived in isolation—such as in Australia for Mastotermes darwiniensis, the most primitive living species—far from those in Africa and Southeast Asia.

The findings appear in Molecular Biology and Evolution.

Source: National University of Singapore