Thursday, March 15, 2007

Master-builders in a self-contained world

Termites, found worldwide in warmer climates, do everything on a grand scale. Termite mounds can be nearly 30 ft (9 m) tall, often extending below ground to a depth of 6-9 ft (2-3 m), and colonies often number millions. In some parts of Africa, termites number as many as 1000 per square foot (10,000 per square metre). In human terms, that is about 60 times as crowded as the Indian city of Delhi.

The world’s 2000 or so species of termites have a variety of building styles. Mounds may be tall and chimney-like, umbrella shapes that keep the rain off, or may resemble mountain ranges, pinnacles, slabs or pagodas. Some are tunnelled in tree stumps and some are oval shaped and hang from trees. Most are built of chewed soil, wood, saliva and droppings.

Within these dramatic exteriors, the nests are miracles of design. At the heart of the nest is the central royal chamber, where the queen - up to about 6 in (15 cm) long and about 6000 times heavier than her consort or subjects - lays thousands of eggs each day. She is attended by her consort and busy sterile workers of either or both sexes. The nest also houses warehouses, nurseries and factories. They are kept humid and maintained at an almost constant temperature by a complex air-conditioning system made up of a network of chambers and passages.

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