In the Northern Territory Spinifex termites (Nasutitermes triodiae ) construct some of the biggest mounds in the world, containing in excess of a million termites. This was taken in 1977 near Adelaide River. At the time it on the Stuart Highway which was part of Highway 1, this road has now been bypassed.
If you travel along the African or Australian or South American dry savannas, you will see from far away some strange constructions resembling the towers of a castle. The architects that build them are the termites, insects of the Isoptera, that live in colonies made of millions of individuals.
They are called also "white ants", but have nothing to do with the real ants (which are related to the wasps and bees); they are closer to...cockroaches. And termites emerged much before the ants, being more than 200 million years old, when dinosaurs had not even appeared. Today, they are found everywhere in warm and subtropical regions.
They number about 4,000 species, adapted to live hidden in their dark nests. The base of their diet is formed by cellulose, which they procure either from wood or dead grassy vegetation. They avoid the open spaces, as their body is soft, and termites are appreciated by many birds, mammals, reptiles and even...ants. There are large mammal species whose diet is based on insects, like the anteaters from tropical America or the African aardvark.
The whole mound denotes an extraordinary precision and ingenuity. The mounds are not fix, some portions are destroyed and remodeled constantly by the workers. The mounds' form varies depending on the species, from castle towers to pagodas, huge mushrooms, stalagmites or dome (these types are preferred by predators, like lions or cheetahs, as observatories over the plain). Some species build a shield over the mound, protecting the roof of the mound against rainfall. But in fact most of the mound is underground. A termite mounds can weigh hundreds of tons.
As termites avoid open spaces, they can dig underground galleries of hundreds of meters away from the mound, which have aeration tubes, and form a complex and vast net around the mound. Termites can make their nests also in the trees, hanging from the branches.
The termites can maintain their fungi culture, keeping them wet, even during the most severe droughts. How? Because they dig galleries to the table water or underground springs, even 75 m (225 ft) deep. Moreover, inside the termite mound, there is constantly a humidity of 100 % and a temperature varying between 29�C (84� F) to 31�C (88� F), necessary for both fungi and termites. The galleries form a perfect installation of conditioning air. The orientation north-south of the mounds also helps in thermoregulation. The column of hot air rising in the above ground mounds helps drive air circulation currents inside the subterranean network.
Because what the termites dig underground, they bring to the surface, an analysis of the termite mounds can give a quick answer to the contents of deeper laying levels of soil and even rock. Ancient African civilizations used the termite mounds to locate gold deposits. The unconventional "termite" technique is increasingly used by western companies looking for gold in Africa. Its advantages are obvious; there is less need for manpower and equipment, which has to be transported to remote areas, often without infrastructure, while the drilling work is left to the termites.
Using this method, gold prospects have been found in Southern Africa and several countries in western Africa, like Mali and Niger. Termite mounds have been also used to discover the Vila Manica copper deposit in Mozambique in 1973. Later, the biggest kimberlite (diamond) mine in the world - Jaweng in Botswana - was found by termite mound sampling.
Through their activity, termites enrich the soil in nitrogen. They remove dry vegetation, decreasing the risk of natural fires. Still, termites can also attack the wood of the houses, inducing huge damages. 10% of the termite species do this. Sometimes, the owner does not even sense the presence of the termites till the house is down, as the wood attacked by termites look untouched on the surface, even if completely hollow inside.
CONSUMER NOTE: certain termite species if left uncontrolled can cause a severe amount of damage to a building in a short amount of time. If you find termites in or around your property, it is essential that you do NOT disturb them and promptly contact your local termite specialist for and inspection of the property and advice on the protective measures available.
Mother Nature's most prolific builders
This picture shows a large above ground termite nest found in the Northern Territory of Australia. In cooler climates, most of the destructive termite species build their nest completely below ground level.
A large colony in an urban environment is most often unseen, being totally below ground level with a nest containing more than a million termites - secretly eating the inside of your timbers leaving you an empty shell.