How Do Tiny Termites Build Such Huge Structures?
SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry professor of animal physiology J. Scott Turner is considered one of the world’s leading experts on termite mounds. For the past 26 years he has scanned them with lasers, filled them with plaster and propane and even fed termites green water all in the hope to better understand the amazing structures that are termite mounds.
A single termite is quite small, approximately the size of standard black ants, but when combined in colonies of hundreds of thousands and sometimes millions of individual termites they can build structures that can reach over 1.8 meters tall. In a typical termite mount the approximately 15kg of termites are able to transport a quarter of a ton of soil and several tons of water in a single year, all in the effort to build their home.
In addition to experiments on physical termite mounds, Turner designed computer simulations that allowed him to explore patterns in termite behaviour. Turner found that termites are constantly rebuilding in a race against the weather, specifically rain. Whilst mounds can take up to five years to build, a heavy downpour will cause approximately a third of all termite mounds in the affected area to collapse.
Turner was able to demonstrate the termites amazing ability to rebuild buy putting a hole in the side of a mound. Almost instantaneously termites spill out of the hole to collect soil to rebuild. Turner’s research has shown that in lab situations a similar reaction can be trigged by varying air pressure, humidity and concentrations of CO2 in the air.
When a termite first noticed a sign of disturbance in the mound, it communicates the message with other termites via touch and vibrations, the masses of termites are alerted by the increase in activity in a certain area and flock to the area to help repair the damage.
Turner says that the mounds are not high rise style residential structure like most people believe, but are instead accessory organs of gas exchange. As the majority of the colony lives underground, these mounds serve as an inlet/outlet systems for respiratory gasses for the colony.
Whilst experimenting on colonies Turner added green dye to the termites water supply to track the distribution of water throughout the mound. During this experiment he discovered that the termites transfer water from insect to insect via a mechanism he called the “Wet Kiss”. This allowed the termites to transfer the water much like a bucket brigade and get it to the spots in the mound that need it the most.
These highly social skilled workers could potentially teach us lots about thinking. Research out of Harvard’s Wyss institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering lead computer scientists and roboticists to turners site to observe termite behaviour using a series of high tech scanners and software. Harvard robots professor Radhika Nagpal draws similarities between termite colonies and the human brain. Stating that individual termites react rather than think. However at a group level they demonstrate a level of cognitive awareness of their surroundings not dissimilarly to the function of neurons in a brain.