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Termites are nature's architects, building well-ventilated nests

We often admire skyscrapers as wonders of human engineering. But nature has its own architects, and they’ve been around much longer. Termites can build enormous, complex nests that stand several meters tall.

Termites do not just construct random piles of dirt – they build intricate tunnels that even have natural air conditioning. But how do legions of these tiny creatures coordinate to create such impressive structures?

A new study by researchers at the IMT School for Advanced Studies Lucca in Italy has cracked the mystery. It turns out, termites have a surprisingly simple, yet ingenious secret.

Termites build nests without a blueprint

Picture a human construction project. Teams follow a detailed architectural plan, ensuring everything is in its designated place. But termites don’t seem to have any grand designs drawn up.

In a fascinating experiment, researchers observed groups of termites (the species Coptotermes gestroi) as they built their way around small arenas with pre-built structures.

Scientists offered following theories to explain termite coordination:

Theory 1: Pheromones

Some insects, like ants, use chemicals called pheromones as signals. These scents can act like a “build here!” sign, guiding the actions of other insects in the colony.

If termites also relied on pheromones, we’d expect them to drop their building materials (clay pellets) somewhat randomly throughout the experimental space. However, the researchers observed a very different pattern. The termites focused their building efforts on specific spots.

Theory 2: Height-sensing

Perhaps termites have a way to measure existing structures. If they preferred taller structures, it would suggest they’re aiming to build upward as quickly as possible.

The termites didn’t discriminate between tall and short pillars. They were equally interested in building upon structures regardless of their current height. This meant some other factor was influencing their behavior.

Termites use the ‘right curve’ while building nests

What the scientists did notice was that termites were obsessed with…curvature. They consistently added their pellets to the most curved surfaces. Termites favored pillar tops, and even the sharp corners of little walls given to them. This led the researchers to a simple yet brilliant solution.

While the termites didn’t stick to one spot or solely focus on height, the scientists discovered they had a clear preference. Termites consistently placed their clay pellets on surfaces with the most pronounced curve. Examples of this were the pointed tops of the pillars or the very sharp bends at the corners of the walls.

This focused building behavior led researchers to consider a new possibility. Since curved surfaces affect things like airflow and moisture differently than flat areas, it suggested that termites might be sensing and reacting to subtle environmental changes caused by the shape of the structures.

Termites sense humidity to build nests

Termites are super-sensitive to humidity. Unlike many insects, their soft skin makes them vulnerable to drying out. The researchers suspected the termites could sense subtle differences in humidity levels that are influenced by the shape of the structures they’re building.

Termites are much more delicate than many other insects. Their lack of a tough outer shell means they lose moisture quickly in dry environments, which can be dangerous. This led scientists to think that perhaps humidity plays a major role in termite building behavior.

The shape of a structure can change how air moves around it, which in turn affects how quickly moisture evaporates. Areas with high curvature might create little pockets where humidity remains higher compared to flatter surfaces. The researchers thought termites might be able to detect these subtle differences.

To test their theory, they pulled a clever trick. They repeated the experiment, but this time with clay mixed with a salt solution. As the water evaporated, tiny salt crystals formed – and guess where those crystals appeared? All the spots with high curvature favored by the termites.

Simplicity of termites

“What really surprised us was to discover that termites use such a simple solution to a very complex problem,” said Andrea Perna, a professor in complex systems at the IMT School.

Characteristics of termites and their remarkable nest building:

Humidity Sensor

As discussed, termites need a moist environment to survive. They have built-in sensors that help them detect even small differences in humidity levels within their surroundings. They are naturally drawn to areas where the air holds more moisture.

Build and change

Clearly, when a termite adds a clay pellet to a structure, it slightly alters its shape. This tiny change influences how air flows around it, and how quickly water evaporates from that spot. More evaporation means drier air, which might be less comfortable for termites.

Chain reaction

Even though a single termite isn’t trying to communicate, their act of building changes the local humidity. Other termites, also seeking the most comfortable spots, sense this change. They become more likely to deposit their own clay pellets in that same area, further altering the structure and the moisture patterns around it.

Repeating this simple process results in incredibly intricate nests. This continuous feedback loop is the magic ingredient. Each termite simply responds to the immediate humidity levels.

Yet, over time, as thousands of termites make these tiny adjustments, elaborate nests emerge. These nests boast tunnels for travel, chambers optimized for airflow, and structures that help maintain the perfect internal humidity for the whole colony.

Lessons from termites

Sometimes, the most amazing things can be built with simple rules. Think how a tiny drop of water, responding to gravity, can shape magnificent caves over time. The study demonstrates a fascinating truth:

“In our experiments, nest complexity emerges from just one simple mechanism: termites only need to add pellets of material depending on the local humidity, but the pellets that they add in turn change all the pattern of evaporation and humidity, inducing other termites to build at a different location, and so on, until very complex structures are produced,” explained Perna.

Nature shows us that sometimes it’s not about grand plans, but simply responding to your environment, one small step at a time. That’s a lesson humans building their own communities might take to heart.

The study is published in the journal ELife.


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