Termites form and are formed by their mounds – EurekAlert

Termites form and are formed by their mounds – EurekAlert
Termites form and are formed by their mounds - EurekAlert - their, termites, mounds, formed, eurekalert

IMAGE: Cheetahs stalk round a meters-high termite mound in Namibia
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Credit score: Harvard SEAS

Termite development tasks haven’t any architects, engineers or foremen, and but these centimeter-sized bugs construct advanced, long-standing, meter-sized buildings all around the world. How they do it has lengthy puzzled scientists.

Now, researchers from the Harvard John A. Paulson Faculty of Engineering and Utilized Sciences and the Division of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology have developed a easy mannequin that reveals how exterior environmental elements, similar to daytime temperature variations, drive inside airflows within the mound. As air strikes by way of the mound, pheromones carried in these flows set off constructing conduct in particular person termites, who reply by modifying the mound structure. These modifications, in flip, alter the inner flows in a steady suggestions cycle.

The mannequin explains how variations within the surroundings result in the distinct morphologies of termite mounds in Asia, Australia, Africa, and South America.

This new framework demonstrates how easy guidelines linking environmental physics and animal conduct can provide rise to advanced buildings in nature. It sheds mild on broader questions of swarm intelligence and will function inspiration for designing extra sustainable human structure.

The analysis is printed within the Proceedings of the Nationwide Academy of Sciences.

“Our framework breaks down the bogus barrier between dwelling and non-living methods by specializing in maybe the best-known instance of animal structure — termite mounds,” mentioned L. Mahadevan, the Lola England de Valpine Professor of Utilized Arithmetic, of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology, and of Physics and senior creator of the examine. “As Winston Churchill as soon as mentioned ‘We form our buildings and thereafter they form us.’ We are able to quantify this assertion by exhibiting how advanced buildings come up by coupling environmental physics to easy collective behaviors on scales a lot bigger than an organism.”

Whereas they could seem like condo complexes, termite mounds really perform as a air flow system for the colony that lives deep underground. In earlier analysis, Mahadevan and his staff discovered that modifications in exterior temperatures all through the day drive modifications in airflow, temperature and humidity contained in the termite mound.

These modifications in airflow carry information-containing odors to termites contained in the mound. These data clouds — made up of pheromones and metabolic gases similar to carbon dioxide — inform termites the place to regulate the mound. If, as an illustration, one part of the mound is just too heat, that temperature change will set off a change in air circulation, which is able to carry construction-cues to close by employees. The termites will comply with their senses to that part and modify the mound to cut back temperature. That change in temperature will change the air circulation and the termites will change their conduct.

By quantifying this suggestions loop, the mannequin developed by the Mahadevan group presents a minimal description that captures the important options of mound morphogenesis and generates a variety of typical mound morphologies.

“The big selection of termite mound styles and sizes predicted by our mannequin displays the varied vary of mound morphologies noticed in nature,” mentioned Alexander Heyde, a Harvard Ph.D. pupil and co-first creator of the examine. “Some mounds are tall and slim, whereas others are small and compact. Relying on the bodily and behavioral parameters at play, the mounds of various termite species can look remarkably totally different.”

“Our mannequin presents a easy reply to a long-standing query in termite ecology, a discipline which already conjures up and informs the interdisciplinary communities of bio-inspired engineering and swarm intelligence. This analysis challenges us to learn to construct sustainable architectures that harness, relatively than combat, the pure variations in our surroundings,” mentioned Mahadevan.


The analysis was co-authored by Samuel Ocko, former graduate pupil within the group and now a postdoctoral fellow at Stanford. It was supported partly by the Nationwide Science Basis and the MacArthur Basis.

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