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


  1. #1 Deaf Indian Muslim Anarchist
    February 22, 2010

    I’d like to blow that up to the size of a doberman, so I can use it as a guard insect in my front yard! Take that, neighbors!!! Ha!

  2. #2 Steve
    February 22, 2010

    the mandibles look like they are made of water – great light!

  3. #3 myrmecos
    February 22, 2010

    Thanks Steve. The lighting is a product of this diffuser.

  4. #4 Gordon Snelling
    February 22, 2010

    Some of the coolest termites out there, and those mandibles will draw blood quite easily.

  5. #5 James C. Trager
    February 22, 2010

    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.

  6. #6 Psi Wavefunction
    February 22, 2010

    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! ^^

  7. #7 JasonC.
    February 23, 2010

    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?

  8. #8 Invictacidal
    February 23, 2010


    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.

  9. #9 dorit
    February 24, 2010

    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.

  10. #10 7 Digital Frame
    February 25, 2010

    At over a centimeter in length I wonder what it would feel like to get bit by one of them? I am just curious to know just how much of a wallop an insect of that size can produce.

  11. #11 Subverted
    March 1, 2010

    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. =)

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