Following a series of studies on termite mound physiology and morphogenesis over the past decade, researchers at the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences have now developed a mathematical model to help explain how termites construct their intricate mounds. The research is published in the February 2, 2021 issue of PNAS. The article is titled “Self-Organized Biotectonics of Termite Nests.” "Termite mounds are amongst the greatest examples of animal architecture on our planet," said Lakshminarayanan Mahadevan, PhD, the Lola England de Valpine Professor of Applied Mathematics, of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology, and of Physics at Harvard University, and lead author of the study. "What are they for? How do they work? How are they built? These are the questions that have puzzled many scientists for a long time." In previous research, Dr. Mahadevan and his team showed that day-to-night temperature variations drive convective flow in the mound that, not only ventilates the colony, but also move pheromone-like cues around, which trigger building behavior in termites. Here, the team zoomed in further to understand how termites build the intricately connected floors in individual mounds without a plan or a planner. With experimentalists from the University of Toulouse, France led by Guy Theraulaz, PhD, the researchers mapped the interior structures of two nests using CT scans, and quantified the spacing and arrangement of floors and ramps. Adding to the complexity of the nests is the fact that not only do termites build simple ramps to connect floors but they also build spiral ramps, like the ramps in parking garages, to connect multiple floors.
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