Suffolk Termites – Master Builders
Termites are some of the most prolific builders on Earth. Several of them could fit on your fingernail, but together they can build structures up to 17 feet high. Yet in a colony of a million termites, there’s no one master termite that directs all the others. So how do Suffolk termites accomplish what they do—how do they coordinate these massive construction projects?
That’s the question Dr. Scott Turner has studied for the past 26 years. An animal physiology professor at the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry in Syracuse, Dr. Turner has laser-scanned termites, tracked their movements with microscopic beads, fed them fluorescent green water, created computer simulations of termite behavior, and even attempted to turn their behavior into a video game.
He mite be obsessed.
Turner says termite mounds can take four to five years to build, and a torrential downpour could destroy one at any moment. Termites are constantly fighting erosion and re-patching their mounds where nature has damaged them. They accomplish this via intricate sensors that detect slight changes in gas concentration and humidity, and communicate these changes to other termites via vibrations and touch—which then relay the message to other termites. And with a quick domino effect, the whole colony can be mobilized.
Inside a termite mound, below the queen’s chamber, sits an enormous fungus farm. Termites bring grass and wood back to the mound, which they arrange in a maze of combs. Then they fill these combs with fungus spores, which partially digest the wood, yielding a high-energy source for the termites. This fungus-termite symbiosis dates back millions of years. Fungi account for 85% of the total metabolic activity inside the mound. “I like to tell people that this may not be a termite-built structure,” he says. “It may actually be a fungus-built structure.”
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