We have met the enemy and it is … termites!
OK, anyone who has ever had termites attack their house, roof or any wooden structure knows the destruction they can wreak. Fortunately, at least in some cases, these roach cousins (yes, they’re in the cockroach family despite being called ‘white ants’) can be eradicated from a domicile with powerful pesticides delivered underneath a house-enveloping tent. Unfortunately, there’s no tent big enough for what researchers recently discovered in Brazil – a 4,000-year-old interconnected array of termite mounds that covers an area equivalent to the size of Great Britain. What’s that strange munching sound? Did Sao Paulo just disappear? Was that a burp?
"These mounds were formed by a single termite species that excavated a massive network of tunnels to allow them to access dead leaves to eat safely and directly from the forest floor. The amount of soil excavated is over 10 cubic kilometers, equivalent to 4,000 great pyramids of Giza, and represents one of the biggest structures built by a single insect species."
Make that the biggest structure built by ANY species. In a press release announcing the publication of a new study (with pictures) on the mounds in Current Biology, co-author Stephen Martin of the University of Salford described what even the tiniest of creatures can do just by working together. Despite their vast area, height (the dirt cones are up to ten feet high) and sheer numbers (200 million), these termite mounds have been virtually invisible on the ground due to their remote location in northeastern Brazil that is covered with semiarid, thorny-scrub forests whose leaves have been providing food for the termites for 4,000 years. That’s right … soil samples taken from 11 mounds date them back 3,820 years, putting them in contention with some in Africa for the world’s oldest termite mounds. (Do termites have a Guinness book? If they did, that wood-pulp paper wouldn’t last long anyway.)
"It's incredible that, in this day and age, you can find an 'unknown' biological wonder of this sheer size and age still existing, with the occupants still present."
That’s right … Martin and his colleagues were brave enough to walk amongst the billions of termites munching together to add to this ancient insect city. They found that the mounds are not nests but 4,000-year-old piles of termite poo generated from 4,000 years of eating rotting leaves. The mounds each have a single passageway – a tunnel right up the middle to the point on top of the cone – and are interconnected by underground tunnels.
Can we puny humans learn anything from these termites before we eventually attempt to destroy them (yes, the reason they were discovered is that the forest is being torn down for development)? Plenty, according to the study. The mounds are organized in a regular spatial pattern, which the researchers attributed to a non-aggressive cooperation between the termites. That cooperation and organization occurred despite any evidence of leadership – no queen chamber has ever been found.
Will this massive munching metropolis of ‘mites manage to outmaneuver the march of mankind? Put your money on the termites … after all, they’re roaches.