By Nikita Zachariah, Graduate Student, Centre for Ecological Science, Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru, India
Walking in the wild or even in a metro city like Bengaluru you are sure to find animal homes in all their grandeur — bower bird nests, bee hives, spider webs and termite mounds. These aesthetically designed structures have always fascinated architects, naturalists and laypersons alike, yet we barely know how they are built — what are the basic building blocks or bricks in these constructions and how materials are chosen for these constructions.
In consultation with my PhD advisors Prof. Renee M. Borges and Prof. Tejas G. Murthy I decided to explore the physical, chemical and behavioural aspects of one such construction — the termite mound. Though made up of soil, termite mounds can stand in sun and rain for decades together without dissolving thanks to termite secretions that are mixed with soil during construction imparting ten fold increase to its strength. Termite mounds can house more than a million termite individuals and can reach a height of 10 metres. At a human scale this would correspond to a building 10 kilometres tall… taller than Mount Everest!! Termites construct these mounds without an architect, without a masterplan, in fact without even seeing the structure they are building. Yes, these termites are blind. Not only do termites engineer their mounds, they also engineer entire ecosystems making them drought resistant. Yet, little do we know about the basic building blocks of these mounds and what makes a geographic region conducive for mound construction.
I studied Odontotermes obesus species of termites in Bengaluru, India. It is widely distributed in the Indian subcontinent and makes mounds that are upto 2.5 meters tall. It aggregates moist soil particles into tiny balls which act as bricks during mound construction. The different castes of termites (such as major and minor termites) make different sizes of bricks which they jointly pack like golf balls in a jar with marbles filling the space between the balls thereby achieving tight packing and consequently high strength. Moreover, in the lab they were even able to use materials like glass beads for making bricks. Since termites used a totally unfamiliar material, glass beads, I was curious to know what else can they handle? In order to understand this I gave them every material I could get my hands on — metal powders, jellies, even tissue paper and paraffin wax!! To my surprise they used all the materials as long as they were able to walk and chew on them. But they do had their personal favourites, e.g. they loved granular materials over others and were equally willing to use non-familiar materials like glass beads as the familiar ones (soil). Other properties that determined the ease of handling were hydrophilic, osmotically inactive and nonhygroscopic nature, surface roughness, rigidity and presence of organic matter. These material properties along with the availability of moisture and favourable climatic conditions will determine the global geographic distribution of termites, a matter of considerable importance given their roles as ecosystem engineers. This study also takes us towards understanding how tiny termites make mounds that any engineer would envy.
The study was published in the journal Scientific Reports (https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-017-04295-3) and was featured in Science magazine (http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2017/07/thesetermites-can-use-glass-beads-build-mounds).