Termite nests: The secret of the architectural skill

Despite of the tiny size, termites can move hundreds and thousands of kilograms of soil, raising huge — especially by their measures — nests. They get very firm and effective constructions with a functioning ventilating system and climate control, with galleries and floors. But for all that no insect from the colony has any definite plan for construction: everything happens through self-organization.

Termite nests
For the small insects termite nests are not just their homes, but entire cities.

Termite nests shouldn’t be compared with buildings — they are cities, reaching 10 m in height and 15 m in diameter, with countless tunnels and corridors, halls and galleries. Scientists suppose that such constructions are realized not in the result of a well thought-out plan, but through self-organization, like a branched crone of a tree. But how exactly termites could do such a job was unclear.

What do termite nests look like

Christian Jost together with his colleagues from the French University of Toulouse in their last research used X-ray photography to peer inside termite nests and see all the details of their inner structure. They studied constructions of three different termite species (Cubitermes, Thoracotermes and Procubitermes), whose nests have little similarity in their appearances: mushroom-like in Cubitermes, columns in Thoracotermes, and cone-shaped in Procubitermes. But, as the authors of the new work have proved, the idea of a colony construction is always the same. The insects don’t need to have neither a common idea nor any conception of their amazing dwelling organization — they just need to follow a set of simple rules.

A termitarium always starts with a tunnel, followed by the first hall. The subsequent construction is based on the unsophisticated rules: tunnels are always dug from halls; but the older the hall, the less tunnels are stared from it. This procedure can be achieved because the chemical signals, left by termite workers, begin to fade away.

What do termite tunnels look like

The lengths and directions of tunnels are quite accidental, but in case a tunnel meets an already existing one, it stops and never goes through it. Every tunnel finishes either this way or with a new hall. Close to each other halls get connected into one, and unused tunnels get walled up — termite workers get the information about such tunnels through chemical signals as well. We would like to draw your attention to the fact that this principle reminds of the transportation system organization in ants: everything happens more or less by chance, but more often used (shorter or leading to richer sources of food) ways get fixed by chemical marks, and the less used become “forgotten”.

On the basis of these rules the scientists created a mathematical model and calculated the mass of termite nests structure, then compared the virtual constructions with about half a thousand of real structures, which were X-ray examined. Their similarity was remarkable. “The last research demonstrates that relatively simple behavioral algorithms, for fulfillment of which termite workers just need to have information about the local environment, enables the insects to create an architectural work in a way, without the central coordination or a detailed plan of construction”, underlines Christian Jost.

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