Termites in the News
Termites have been in the news a lot lately, and as we find out more about these amazing creatures this interest will only grow. For instance, new research at Harvard University in its TERMES Project is revealing secrets about why the brains and building behavior of termites are so efficient and successful. See a video from their project below.
Harvard TERMES Project
In the Termitat you will be able to observe how this behavioral system requires no central control. For instance, it allows certain African termites to build elaborate temperature controlled mega-structures that have built-in food producing “farms.” These “smart swarm” decision making behaviors are currently being intensely studied to see if similar behaviors could be used by humans to effectively program robots for similar capabilities.
Climbing robots, modeled after termites, can be programmed to work together to build tailor-made structures.
Image courtesy of Eliza Grinnell, Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences
A team led by Wyss Core Faculty member L. Mahadevan traveled to India to investigate mounds of the termite species Odontotermes obesus, pictured. Pictured on the right, thermal images are superimposed on the same photo of the mound. The left half of the mound shows nighttime thermal distribution while the right half of the mound shows daytime thermal distribution. The cyclic day-night thermal oscillations create a closed-loop convection air current inside the mound, flushing carbon dioxide out and bringing fresh air in. Credits: Harvard University / Hunter King, Sam Ocko and Naomi Ocko
A mound of the termite species Odontotermes obesus in Southern India. Respiratory flows inside are driven by daily oscillations in ambient temperature. Credits: Harvard University / Hunter King, Sam Ocko and Naomi Ocko
The crucial role of these termite mounds in the ecology of African savannas has just been discovered. Signature species such as the big cats and elephants depend on the role the mounds play in controlling desertification in a world increasingly threatened by climate change. Additionally, work is currently underway to unlock the secrets of the termite’s digestion of cellulose. Scientists are interested in this type of digestion as they believe it could lead to the development of a new source of fuel to replace fossil fuels. Even in the extensive history of successful and unusual adaptations by insects, this one is pretty top notch. Cellulose is the most abundant organic molecule on Earth.
Photo by Malani Pittet
Mike Scharf’s work with termites has shown that the insects’ digestive systems may help break down woody biomass for biofuel production (Image: Purdue Agricultural Communication photo/Tom Campbell)
photo credit: Charles Krebs