Pest status: the most destructive termite pest in Australia, estimated to cause more economic loss than any other insect species in the northern part of the continent (Hill, 1942). Can destroy: all kinds of timber, lead sheathing of electrical cables, bitumen, paper, bone, ivory (including billiard balls, Andersen & Jacklyn, 1993), horn, dung, leather, hides, ebonite, asbestos, jute, cotton and other vegetable fibre, silk, woolen fabrics, stored grass hay, sugar, bagged pickling salt, and flour (Hill, 1942; Hadlington, 1987; Andersen & Jacklyn, 1993).
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Mastotermes is endemic to Northern Australia, but has been introduced to Papua New Guinea, and apparently to Gebe Island, west of Halmahera in the north Moluccas (Watson & Abbey, 1993). Fossil species have been recorded from the Eocene, Miocene, and Oligocene in southern England (Jarzembowski, 1984), Continental Europe (Grasse, 1985), and Mexico (Krishna & Emerson, 1983).
Mastotermes is considered to be the most phylogenetically basal (‘primitive’) of all termites (Kambhampati & Eggleton, 1999), and is placed in a family of its own (the Mastotermitidae, with a single extant species Mastotermes darwinensis), along with several fossil genera and species (see Grasse, 1985). DeSalle et al. (1992) claimed to have sequenced DNA from Mastotermes electrodominicus from 25-30 million year old amber, and thus place the extinct taxon phylogenetically in context with extant genera, but the validity of this is disputed (Austin et al., 1997).