Ancient Network Of Massive Termite Mounds In Brazil Are "Biological Wonders"

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The massive cones scattered in northeastern Brazil are the work of tiny termites (Credit: Roy Funch)

Termites are famous for their superior architectural skills. The mounds created by the industrious insects contain an elaborate network of tunnels with a series of chimneys that help regulate oxygen levels, temperature, and humidity to ensure the queen, who sits in a chamber underneath, is comfortable.

However, the over 200 million mounds, each measuring 30 feet wide at the base and between 6 to 13 feet tall, found in northeastern Brazil are like none other. The structures, big enough to be visible on Google Earth, have neither nests nor chimneys — they are just piles of dirt tossed aside by termites building pathways to forage dead leaves from the forest floor.

Termite structures have been the inspiration for many skyscrapers (Credit: thinkster-moms-dads.com)

Roy Funch of the State University of Feira de Santana in Brazil, who co-authored the study published in Current Biology on November 19, 2018, first noticed the enormous piles of dirt about three decades ago. However, it was just recently, when farmers began clearing the semi-arid forests to free up more land for farming and grazing, that scientists realized the large structures occupy an area the size of the US state of Oregon! Curious to find out more about the "biological wonders," Funch teamed up with Stephen Martin of the University of Salford in the United Kingdom.

A cross-sectional examination of the cones, or murundas as they are called in Brazil, revealed that unlike other termite mounds, the tube is closed at the top and does not provide ventilation. "They’re just amorphous lumps of soil, with no internal structures. Nothing lives inside them," says Funch. He believes the large number of mounds are a byproduct of the area's dry ecosystem. To find enough leaves to forage, the termites have to constantly expand their network of tunnels. The soil tossed out while creating these pathways builds up over time, resulting in massive cones across a large span of the surface.

The massive dirt cones are the work of the Syntermes dirus termites (Credit: Stephen Martin, University of Salford, Manchester, UK)

To investigate how long the massive structures have been hiding in plain sight, the researchers collected samples of soil from the center of 11 mounds. Their analysis indicated that the youngest muranda was about 690 years old, while the oldest dated back an astonishing 3,890 years — about the same as the world's oldest-known termite mound found in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Africa.

Funch and Martin initially suspected the mounds were the work of several competing termite species. However, as it turned out, they are all created by the Syntermes dirus (S. dirus) termites. "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," says Martin. "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."

An aerial view of the mounds, captured by a drone (Credit: Roy Funch)

The one thing the researchers are unsure about is if the tunnels are abandoned once the termite colony that created them dies, or if they are used by future generations, who continue to dig additional pathways, adding to the giant heaps of soil. They also need to investigate how the termite colonies are structured, given that they have been unable to find a queen chamber of the species inside any of the mounds.

Resources: TheAtlantic.com, sciencedaily.com, livescience.com,cnn.com

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abandonedaccessamorphousarchitecturalaridastonishingbyproductdecadesecosystemelaborateequivalentexcavatedforage grazinghumidityindustriousinvestigateregulate spansuperiortermitesunderneathventilationvisible
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Reading Comprehension (14 questions)

  1. Why are termites famous for their architectural skills?
  2. How many termite mounds were found in northeastern Brazil?
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170 Comments
  • izzy the 2 Wednesday, April 17, 2019 at 10:49 am
    cool
    • dsgWednesday, April 17, 2019 at 7:42 am
      I think termites are taking over the world
      • dsgTuesday, April 16, 2019 at 5:50 pm
        I think termites are taking over the world
        • Minecraft Jude Tuesday, April 16, 2019 at 4:32 pm
          I don't want to think about how old the older ones are
          • tigerbolt
            tigerboltTuesday, April 16, 2019 at 10:46 am
            this is so amazing, i was really surprised :)
            • hiTuesday, April 16, 2019 at 8:05 am
              those are huge!!!!!!!
              • coolTuesday, April 16, 2019 at 6:45 am
                those are huge!!!but awesome. 😎
                • NameMonday, April 15, 2019 at 10:27 am
                  this great
                  • alien believerMonday, April 15, 2019 at 6:48 am
                    wow that old!!!!!!!
                    • coolcoolMonday, April 15, 2019 at 5:56 am
                      Awesome!