These Termite Mounds Are 4,000 Years Old — And Still In Use

By Roni Dengler | November 19, 2018 2:19 pm
termite mounds

This image shows mound fields. The mounds are found in dense, low, dry forest caatinga vegetation and can be seen when the land is cleared for pasture. (Credit: Roy Funch)

Two hundred million mounds of dirt dot an area about the size of Great Britain in a tropical forest in northeastern Brazil. The cone-shaped dirt piles are roughly twice as tall as the average American man and stretch 30 feet across at the base. The mounds, the work of countless generations of termites, rise from the earth every 65 feet or so and are visible from space.

These mounds, as tall as skyscrapers to the insects that made them, aren’t just massive, they’re also incredibly ancient, an international team of researchers has found. The artificial hills have existed for nearly as long as the Pyramids of Giza.

“This is apparently the world’s most extensive bioengineering effort by a single insect species,” Roy Funch, a biologist at the Universidade Estadual de Feira de Santana in Brazil, who co-led the new research, said in a statement. “Perhaps most exciting of all — the mounds are extremely old — up to 4,000 years.”

Discarded Dirt

The termites that built the ancient mounds—known in scientific circles as Syntermes dirus—still use them today, Funch and colleagues found. But unlike many termite-engineered wonders, the S. dirus termites of Brazil do not use the mounds as nests. Instead, the researchers propose the monumental mounds are actually heaping piles of waste.

Over the last few thousand years, the termites dug out a vast network of underground tunnels. The subterranean system allows the insects to venture out onto the forest floor to get food (they live on a high-fiber diet of dead leaves) while minimizing the risk becoming a meal.

In the process of constructing the web of narrow tunnels, the termites moved more than 10 cubic kilometers (that’s more than 2.6 trillion U.S. gallons) of earth, a volume roughly equivalent to 4,000 Great Pyramids of Giza, the researchers report today in the journal Current Biology. The termites discarded material from tunnel construction into these uniformly shaped and massive mounds via a single passage approximately four inches wide that runs up the center of each debris pile.

To find out how old the mounds are, the researchers collected soil from the middle of 11 mounds. Then they dated the dirt with an approach called optically stimulated luminescence. The method uses blue or green light to trigger the release of ionizing radiation from mineral grains within the soil, and the amount of radiation emitted gives them an estimate of how long ago a mineral was exposed to the sun.

World Wonder

The termites’ engineering feat “represents one of the biggest structures built by a single insect species,” Stephen Martin, an entomologist at the University of Salford in the United Kingdom, who co-led the study, said in a statement.

“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,” Martin said.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, top posts
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  • Uncle Al

    the monumental mounds are actually heaping piles of waste
    Termites have outer Inner Cities!

    • OWilson

      No foodstamps, “safe spaces”, welfare, minimum wages, politicians and social engineers, and they already have outlasted us.

      A lesson for the Iphone millennials, who live on the wealth created by the “greatest generation”, or what they can borrow in the name of generations yet unborn!

      One day the bill will become due!

      • Mason Kratz

        Yeah, because wealth can only be accrued through hard work and labor, not scamming and manipulation. That’s why Enron is still a company, and the banking industry has never needed a bailout.

        • OWilson

          Even ants have the common sense to pay as they go! :)

          • Mason Kratz

            They also lack the neurological capacity to produce members of society that abuse others for personal gain.

          • OWilson

            Corrupt politicians that bail out their corrupt and failing corporate cronies is contrary to free markets, and common sense!

            Perpetuation of inefficient and corrupt institutions drives out innovation and efficiency!

            Not good!

          • Fred Coyote

            Found the Libertardian.

        • Mike Richardson

          You have to overlook that one. He can’t resist turning even an article on resourceful insects into an unhinged political diatribe.

          • OWilson

            Hellow… Neumann! :)

        • Ray Pearce

          Enron is not the same company as a matter of fact it is listed as an inactive company. 737 banks have been bailed out. don’t know where you got that idea.

          however the termites did a good job

      • Socialism4America

        The “greatest generation” is the boomers parents, but the boomers might as well be called the “greediest generation”.

        • Fred Coyote

          Someday, another generation will bitch about yours.

  • Erik Bosma

    Smart termites… planning for their futures and their retirement.

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  • Guy Gordon

    Is that a valid assumption? That the minerals were last exposed to sunlight when the mounds were formed? A lot of underground excavation could be dumped out at night & immediately covered. Guess I’ll have to go read the paper to see if they took samples at multiple levels, and found a gradient.

  • Edla Lundgren

    The subject is really interesting. Just would like to say that according to our specific designation, for that biome of northeastern of Brazil, it’s more appropriate to call it Arid Zone, instead of Tropical Forest, which refers to the dense forest of Amazonic region.


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