Termites have been building hundreds of millions of huge mounds for 4,000 years – and now scientists know why

  • 01 Dec - 07 Dec, 2018
  • Mag The Weekly
  • Mag Files

A termite super-colony which spans an area the size of Great Britain has been under construction since the time of the pyramids in ancient Egypt, scientists have found.

Researchers studying the vast landscape of 200 million cone-shaped mounds in northeast Brazil sampled soil from 11 locations and found that some began construction around 3,820 years ago.

At around 2.5 metres tall, 9 metres wide at the base, and spread across 230,000 square kilometres, it represents a vast earth-moving endeavour – but the mounds are not individual termite nests.

Instead, each one is a “waste point” where termite workers dump soil and other matter excavated in the production of a vast subterranean tunnel network which they have used to traverse the landscape in search of food for millennia.

The authors of a new study, published in the journal Current Biology, said the “biological wonder” was akin to those of the ancient world, but with the civilisation that built it still in residence.

“This is apparently the world’s most extensive bioengineering effort by a single insect species,” said Roy Funch of Universidade Estadual de Feira de Santana in Brazil, one of the authors of the report.

The mounds are largely hidden from view by caatinga, an assortment of thorny, desert-like vegetation unique to Brazil, and were only revealed to international scientists a few decades ago as the land was cleared for pasture. Now sampling from the oldest mounds has revealed the area is of comparable age to some of the oldest termite colony structures known to exist in Africa, while others began construction around 600 years ago.