One of my favorite features of the Lowveld landscape are termite mounds. Now at this point this blog could go in a number of directions. I could talk about any number of fascinating termite mound-related topics; from them providing high ground viewing and safety points to various predators (hence why it’s always worth scanning for anything perched atop a termite mound) and how they are used as an incubator for monitor lizard eggs, to how they posthumously provide shelter to a plethora of different species such as mongooses, porcupines, warthogs…the list goes on.
But instead, I’d like to share an idea with you, a kind of thought experiment based on these weird structures. A few years ago I was introduced to a really thought-provoking book written by a South African naturalist and would-be scientist, Eugene Marais, called “Soul of the White Ant.” I found it to be a fairly easy but absolutely captivating read and I would definitely encourage anybody to give it a try.
In summary Marais encourages us to look at the termitary (termite mound) as an entire organism, a fully functioning animal in and of itself. Now I do understand that a termite mound is made up of millions of saliva-cemented sand grains rather than living cells, and so that theory falls flat but try and bear with me here.
Imagine the queen as a brain. She lies there, a thumb-sized monstrosity in comparison to any other termite caste. She is unable to move unless shifted slightly by the workers, as she gathers in millions of bytes of information fed to her by her worker termites or what could be considered as red blood cells in this analogy. The workers are feeding the colony and in turn they are constantly gathering intel from all over the “body”. This information could be about the health of fungus gardens, illness or disease in the colony, mass soldier deaths as a result of a Matabele ant raid, and much more. The queen uses this information and course-corrects accordingly, producing a different concoction of hormones and olfactory chemical cues which affect the worker termite behaviour and in turn, the entire colony.
The reproductive system is made up of the alates, the only termites equipped with sexual organs. These winged termites will crawl about the colony for years if need be, waiting for adequate rainfall. Finally with moisture as their cue, they charge for the surface where the workers have breached an opening into the outside world for them to escape. En masse the swarm takes to the skies in what, for most of them, turns out to be an effort in futility as they are predated upon by almost everything. These predators include various birds and mammals taking advantage of the glut of fats, oils, and nutrients pouring from the ground. But for the lucky few that make it, the female touches down and waits for a male to find her through pheromone trails released from her abdomen. The two dig down into the rain-softened earth where they will attempt to defy the odds and form a new successful termitary. One in which the female will become the new queen and the male, the king, whose sole function is to mate constantly with the queen. In time she will produce thousands upon thousands of eggs.
The soldier termites are the “white blood cells”, protecting the body from invasion and infection with their large mandibles. They’ll gather around any wound in the termitary, caused by an invading aardvark perhaps, and viciously defend that opening until the workers can seal it off.
Next, we have a fully functioning and complex digestive system. Worker termites gather cellulosic material such as dry grass and wood from as far away as 50m from the termitary. Lacking the gut bacteria to break the cellulose into simple sugars, they have teamed up with a fungus to accomplish the task. They take the ingested material back to the fungus gardens, a dedicated chamber deep in the heart of the body. They carefully excrete this masticated matter into high-surface-area, low volume structures that will slowly be enveloped and broken down by the fungus. The worker termites then ingest the fungus which contains the simple sugars they need and distributes them amongst the other living “cells” of the “body”. These other “cells” are the soldiers, alates, and queen, just as the red blood cells would travel in our body.
The workers are also responsible for the growth of the termitary. Grain by grain these tireless creatures build their home, gluing each piece into place with their sticky saliva. The grains are collected as the workers tunnel far and wide in search of food and deep into the bowels of the Earth in search of water.
So, let’s take it back to biology class at school; what are the 7 characteristics of life?
- Movement: it’s a tough one but my take on it is that in as much as trees “move”, so to is a termitary is in a constant state of flux.
- Respiration: the entire termitary acts primarily as a chimney to vent off the massive build-up of metabolic heat but also as a massive lung to “inhale” fresh air as stale CO2-laden air is vented out along with the heat.
- Sensitivity: termite mounds “respond” to break-ins, with the inhabitants swarming to defend and rebuild, the wounds sealing them off, and the mound growing over them.
- Growth: the mound grows constantly, reaching massive heights over what can amount to thousands of years.
- Reproduction: termite mounds have adopted a “spray and pray” strategy whereby the thousands or possibly hundreds of thousands of termites erupt out of a mound only for a near irrelevant number of termites successfully pairing up and starting a new colony
- Excretion: a lot of the excreta is incorporated into the walls of a mound.
- Nutrition: as per above, the complex digestive system of termites is fascinating in itself.
I know the analogy has more than a few holes but as I said at the start, it’s more of a thought experiment, a way of looking at something a little differently. The fact is one termite is nothing but a few million termites all working in unison creating something so much greater than the sum of its parts.