PLOS ONE

"While hybridization of an invasive species with a native species is a common occurrence, hybridization between two invasive species is rare," starts a new research paper from PLUS ONE.

But, Florida being Florida, this is where those kinds of things happen. The report details the freaky hybridization that scientists observed last summer between the Formosan subterranean and Asian subterranean termite species, two of the most economically destructive termite species in the world. Both species, native to different parts of Asia, have thrived in Florida for years after being introduced to the warm climate. Last year, scientists observed that their mating seasons overlapped for the first time—probably due to a warmer-than-usual summer—which led to the hybridization.

Picture taken on May 21st 2014 at 8:32pm during a simultaneous swarm, 1.5 m away from the light trap used in the experiment. The two dealates were looking for a suitable nesting site while walking on a piece of spruce that was placed on top of the plastic tarp. Under poor lighting condition and moving objects, it was difficult to obtain sharp macro photography, but the clear difference of morphology allowed for immediate species identification. (Picture: T.C., PLOS ONE)

"The dispersal flight seasons of both species overlapped for the first time on record in 2013 and 2014," reads the report. "Pairings of heterospecific individuals were readily observed in the field and C. gestroi males preferentially engaged in mating behavior with C. formosanus females rather than females from their own species."

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Studies done with the species in the lab has led the scientists to believe "a potential case of hybrid vigor" might be on Florida's hands, meaning that the hybrids would be able to reproduce its hybridized-self this coming summer. Scientists are not certain this is the case, but it could be.

"Such hybridization would likely be associated with a new economic impact," says the report.

Heterospecific colonies have viable hybrid offspring.
Shown here is a eight month-old incipient colony that contains the male C. gestroi, the female C. formosanus, eggs, larvae, workers and soldiers. Photo: PLOS ONE

"There is also mounting evidence that warming environments resulting from climate change can be an important factor contributing to such hybridization, either by altering the species distribution, or temporally shifting the mating season of species," reads the report.

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Two similar cases that it mentions are the threats associated with the hybridization of Africanized honey bee with the European honey bee, which "has become a problem for human activity in North and South America." Separately, two invasive fire ant populations have hybridized in the Southern U.S., costing the economy over $5 billion every year, according to one study on the subject.

The study acknowledges that because of the termites' long life spans, the full economic and agricultural impact of the hybridization will not be known for some time.

"Coptotermes mature colonies can contain millions of individuals and live up to 20 yrs," it says. "[A]nd even in the absence of alate hybrid fertility, the persistence of hybrid colonies in urban environments would still present a threat to structures (i.e., a kick from a mule is as good as a kick from a donkey)."

Daniel Rivero is a producer/reporter for Fusion who focuses on police and justice issues. He also skateboards, does a bunch of arts related things on his off time, and likes Cuban coffee.