Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Animal Architects - termites

What creature builds this amazing structure? It is the wee termite. Termite mounds are found all over northern Australia near Darwin. They are called magnetic mounds because the termites align them in parallel groupings and orient them north to south. Scientists still aren't sure why or how termites orient their structures along the magnetic poles. One thing is known, these mounds are marvels of construction.

Using nothing more than dirt and their own saliva, termites create a multi-chambered, air-conditioned, rock-hard home. The walls are porous to allow the mound to "breathe," letting stale air out and fresh air in. The living quarters of the termites are usually below the surface of the ground. The many corridors and ducts built into the cathedral-like pillars are used to regulate heat, ensuring a fairly constant temperature for residence regardless of the baking tropical heat outside. Besides living chambers these mounds contain pantries, nurseries, a royal chamber for the king and queen and even gardens that are diligently tended by specially bred worker termites.

Termite mounds are not all built the same but may have special adaptations due to environment. Mounds built in areas with extreme temperatures look almost like they are pleated, giving the mound more surface area so more air can circulate around and through the structure. Termites that build in rainy areas will build an umbrella-like structure across the top of the mound to prevent water from entering the mound and damaging the inhabitants.

When I left Darwin to begin my southerly drive to Adielade along the Stuart Highway, I was amazed by these structures. They were everywhere, and they were huge. To get a sense of their size, realize that I was standing next to this mound when I took the photo. Granted I'm about 5'3", but this mound towered over me. These weren't even the big ones. Some termite mounds reach 20 feet in height.

No comments: