Monsoon Rains & Termite Nuptial Flight

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The rains have finally arrived!!! and yes, there was a premonitory tortoise (with a mouth full of invasive Opuntia / prickly pear cactus) in case you were wondering 😛

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Photographed in situ [1]

The monsoon rains yesterday allowed us to witness the nuptial flight of termites in the genus Odontotermes. Alates (reproductive winged males and females) could be seen by the millions, flying pretty well even under rainy conditions. Clayton and I began chasing and leaping at them until a few were close enough to the ground to catch and identify. But within 10 minutes there were thousands within eyesight at any given moment, slowly flapping in the wind in a neuropteran-like manner. It really is impossible to convey this spectacle in a single photograph. All the tiny black specks are not birds or bats, but termites. Male and female termites form pairs prior to founding a colony. A female will adopt either a downward facing posture or place herself upright on the ground and extend her abdomen outwards, pulsating it repeatedly to release a pheromone to attract males. Females will perform this behavior with wings, beating them rhythmically, or after dropping their wings as well. Even this morning, we have still observed so many wingless females calling for males in our potted plants in the greenhouse. Once paired, the couple will dig a chamber underground to copulate and begin producing offspring. The nuptial flight represents not only a new period of heightened insect activity, but a joyous time for all the animals that receive nourishment from the termites. The change in animal activity, especially birds, is dramatic. Flycatchers, weavers, and other insectivorous birds were constantly assaulting the termites midair, while geckos and baboons picked all of the scrumptious plump bodies off the ground. In the evening I saw many spiders running away from me briskly with termites attached to their chelicerae, and an elephant shrew running back and forth near the massive body of a kudu.

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Photographed after capture [5]
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Snow on Mount Kenya the following morning

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