Thousand-Year-Old Termite Mounds Span an Area the Size of Great Britain and Can Be Seen From Space

Thousand-Year-Old Termite Mounds Span an Area the Size of Great Britain and Can Be Seen From Space

By Drew MacFarlane

November 20 2018 12:30 PM EST

Brazil’s Giant Termite Mounds Visible From Space

At a Glance

  • Researchers uncovered a massive structure built by termites that can be seen from space.
  • 200 million mounds of soil created by the bugs span an area roughly the size of Great Britain.
  • Researchers found the oldest mound dates back nearly 4,000 years, but they believe older samples are likely.

For some 4,000 years, termites have been building a massive and magnificent structure in northeastern Brazil, and until recently, it’s been a well-kept secret.

Scientists have uncovered tens of millions of mysterious cones made of soil , each standing 6 to 13 feet high and 30 feet across at the base, in a largely undisturbed region of Brazil, according to a new paper in Current Biology.

Using satellite imagery, biologist Roy Funch estimated the colossal collection of termite mounds covers over 88,000 square miles — an area roughly the size of Great Britain or the entire state of Oregon — and takes up as much space as 4,000 Great Pyramids.

“Imagine it being a city ,” study lead author Stephen Martin told the Washington Post. “We’ve never built a city that big.”

Because each of the mounds sits some 60 feet from its next closest neighbor, it’s difficult to grasp the sheer size of the 200 million mounds from the ground.

Martin argues that if the trees and vegetation that have kept the mounds hidden for so long were to vanish, the structure would be known as a natural “wonder of the Earth.”

“For scale, the termite mounds occupy an area roughly equivalent to the Great Barrier Reef – a multiple-species bioengineering feat,” Funch told Science Alert. “The mounds we report on are built by a single species of termite.”

If you’re wondering what the mounds were made for, the answer is nothing. Contrary to how they might look, the mounds aren’t nests. They’re piles of leftover dirt shoveled out by termites digging an immense underground tunnel system — essentially waste.

“This vast permanent tunnel network allows safe access to a sporadic food supply, similar to Heterocephalus naked-mole rats that also live in arid regions and construct very extensive burrow networks to obtain food,” wrote the researchers.

Recently cleared land gave researchers a great view of the mound using Google Earth , and once Martin and his team were able to view the area themselves, they could tell how special the superstructure was.

“It used to be all green and brown, but around eight years ago, Google Earth sharpened their images, and I could see the mounds that I had known from the ground,” said Funch.

Sand grains from the center of 11 of the mounds, also known as murundus, found the youngest sample to be 690 years old and the oldest 3,820 years old, comparable to the oldest known termite mounds in the world. Funch, however, thinks much older ones exist among the millions of mounds.

“The scale is beyond belief,” said Martin. “People don’t believe the scale, it’s so big . it’s truly mind-bending.”

Researchers just found termite mounds the size of the UK in Brazil

Researchers have recently uncovered evidence of a 4,000-year-old construction site in northeastern Brazil. Stretching over an area the size of Britain is a cluster of 200 million mounds, some as high as 10 feet tall, that were painstakingly raised over the centuries by generations of extremely ambitious builders—termites.

The mounds are the work of a single species: Syntermes dirus, one of the largest termites in the world. The cone-shaped piles, each spaced about 60 feet apart, are what’s left behind when the insects burrow tunnels in the soil beneath the dry tropical forest. Some of the mounds are still in use. Radioactive dating found that the oldest piles were 3,820 years old, according to a new paper in Current Biology.

That’s about as old as the Great Pyramids at Giza, though the pyramids weren’t quite as ambitious: The mounds represent 2.4 cubic miles of unearthed dirt, a volume that would fill roughly 4,000 Great Pyramids. Like the Egyptian landmarks, they can also be seen from space.

The mounds are the result of a highly efficient food-distribution system. The termites feed on the dead leaves of the dry, thorny caatinga forests unique to the region. The leaves fall once a year, prompting a termite feeding frenzy. The tunnels allow the insects to cover a greater expanse of forest floor.

“Just think if all the supermarkets were open for only one day in the year, those people that can move rapidly along vast distances will get most food and a better chance to survive,” entomologist and lead author Stephen Martin told Gizmodo.

It’s a fascinating find, though the reasons for its discovery are distressing. This UK-sized area used to be covered by trees, which were recently cleared for pasture.

Watts Up With That?

The world’s most viewed site on global warming and climate change

Termite colony the size of Great Britain ‘has been being built since the dawn of the Pyram > charles the moderator / November 22, 2018

The methane! It burns. Seems as if this should be accounted for in GCMs

It’s a construction project unlike any on our planet: it’s the size of Great Britain, and has been going on for 3,820 years, since the Pyramids were first built.

But no humans have been involved in the huge landscape of 200 million mounds in Brazil – it was all built by termites.

Researchers in northeast Brazil sampled soil in 11 locations and found that some of it began nearly four thousand years ago.

Each mound is actually waste from a huge subterranean tunnel network where the termites have laboured for thousands of years.

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75 thoughts on “ Termite colony the size of Great Britain ‘has been being built since the dawn of the Pyramids’ ”

err..some feed on grasses

[pruned by request of author. .mod]

Ants are highly intelligent. Termites, not so much. Doesn’t stop me from killing the scouts they send out into my house. Nor termites who fly through windows in South America.

Small ants have the highest brain to body mass ratio of any animal, at 1:7. For an average human it’s 1:50. Ants pass the mirror recognition test. They’re not just strong but smart. They invented agriculture millions of years before humans.

So, John, if I take one single ant and put him in an enclosure all by himself, how long does he last with his vast intelligence?

(Mirror test is more vision than intelligence.)

Cats refuse to walk on glass over an open hole—does that make them dumb? Other animals will test for solid surface, but not cats.

Note: I don’t have anything against ants. I let them live all over my acres of land. They are food for horned lizards and flickers. I’m just not awarding them anything for “intelligence”.

Hmm. Put the “highly intelligent” (in his own estimation, anyway) Michael Mann in an enclosure all by himself, how long does he last? We can take bets…

Actually, there are extremely few “environmentalists” that would survive more than a couple of days if they were put down on a fully functional medieval level farm, like what they think everybody (else) needs to return to.

How long would a human last by herself in an enclosure? Would depend upon the resources available.

The mirror test requires only enough vision to see the mark on your head which wasn’t there before. Parrots fail it, although they do look behind the glass to see if there is a parrot there. Ants pass it. They know that they’re seeing themselves.

Older ants in a column look back to make sure that the younger ants are following. They communicate directly with each other without the bee’s elaborate dance.

Why do you suppose that insects aren’t intelligent, ie capable of reasoning, like some vertebrates and mollusks? Their brains are small, but so are their bodies. They have enough neurons for higher cognitive functions.

I thought that ants don’t have eyes?

Ants very much have eyes. In some species, their sight isn’t so good, since they rely heavily on their antennae. Some can only detect their prey by movement. The workers of army ants are blind or their eyes are reduced to a single lens. But others have better vision. Most however can see.

Ants are descended from wasps, which have pretty good vision.

Ants invading termite colonies care for their wounded comrades. They also communicate to form the complex structures they form in order to perform various tasks.

Ants are amazin creatures. Whatever you think of Sir David Attenborough, this recent program on peaceful and warlike colonies in meadows in the Jura Mountains is well worth viewing, IMO. Also the process info at the end on his team’s specialized camera system.

Ant vision varies from really good to blind:

“Sheri November 22, 2018 at 6:11 am

So, John, if I take one single ant and put him…”

Her. Ants are all female except for flying ants. And they are all clones.

[Hence the slow, sad refrain sung by all lonely aunts, “Send in the clones ..” .mod]

Half of flying ants are males, who soon die after doing their duty, and half female, ie queens, who live a long time and keep making new ants from the supply of sperm their matings provides them.

Maybe this is what you had in mind:

That social insects don’t thrive alone doesn’t mean that they’re not individually smart. It’s just that they don’t want to live alone, apart from the families for which they gladly give their lives.

“It is certain that there may be extraordinary activity with an extremely small absolute mass of nervous matter; thus the wonderfully diversified instincts, mental powers, and affections of ants are notorious, yet their cerebral ganglia are not so large as the quarter of a small pin’s head. Under this point of view, the brain of an ant is one of the most marvellous atoms of matter in the world, perhaps more so than the brain of man.”
– Charles Darwin, 1871.

I, for one, welcome our insect overlords.

Isn’t there a long waiting list of arthropod overlords? Maybe they’ll fight each other to a standstill and we vertebrates can endure.

Nah. They’re too smart for that. Unlike the Byzantine and Sassanian Empires, who gave the newly Muslim Arabs their opening.

All of this talk about intelligent ants makes me wish I did not say anything about setting their colonies on fire. Could someone remove that for me before it is too late? CTM?

Just say you meant other ants’ colonies are those you wanted to burn and explode. Nobody kills more ants than other ants, from competing colonies. Then they eat the dead.

There are 13000 species of ants and many species don’t like each other. There are also many wars between same specie colonies and even internal colony coup d’etats. No one knows how many total ants there are but estimates range from 100 trillion to 10000 trillion. At least one insect out of a 1000 is an ant. Truly the ants own this planet. They are the garbage collectors of the planet and are the industrial giants of the insect world despite what termites accomplish. They feed on organic waste, eggs of other insects, other insects themselves, dead insects and dead animals. They accelerate the decomposition process of timber. They aerate the soil with all of their digging. They till the soil by bringing pebbles and particles to the surface. They were here 120 million years ago and will be here long after we are all gone.

“They were here 120 million years ago and will be here long after we are all gone”.

I am pretty convinced that I am extremely likely to survive all of the trillions of ants currently living in our planet lol. But talking about the species and not the individuals, while ants could survive many things that would destroy mankind, it is still possible that what finally kills us also destroys all life on Earth. It is impossible to know now what the form of the ultimate destroyer will be (and please, everybody stop thinking about Marshmallows NOW!)

You must be quite a bit younger than I.

Unless I make it to my present actuarial target of 82, there are ants now alive which will probably survive me. Some live 15 years. Maybe more.

Beetle (Order Coleoptera) species outnumber ants and other hymenopterans, but there is a lot more individual ants than of any beetle family.

A 2006 study found that ants might hae diverged from their wasp ancestors much earlier than previously thought, ie 168 Ma (Late Jurassic), rather than 140 Ma (Early Cretaceous). In any case, they seem to have benefited from the radiation of flowering plants (angiosperms) some 120 Ma:

And to think insects put out 10 times the CO2 as humans do.

This short little article says the mounds are from “one species” but it does not say they are all from the same colony — although it implies it. Which is it?

Probably hard to define.
But if the tunnel network is all linked then it’s probably one colony.
Unless there are tiny underground war-zones along no-termite’s land.

“tiny underground war-zones along no-termite’s land”

That might be happening with Termites in Korea. If one of the bigger mounds there implodes, we’ll know they’ve got nuclear capability.

“It’s a construction project unlike any on our planet: it’s the size of Great Britain, and has been going on for 3,820 years, since the Pyramids were first built.”

The Great Pyramid was built 4,578 years ago (ca. 2560 B.C.) Cleopatra was born closer in time to the smartphone than the Great Pyramid.

Interesting way to put time in prospective.

Thanks for that

What do they eat? Seems there is very little wood nearby, and they must eat a lot collectively.

They eat leaves and whatever other plant detritus is available.

My understanding is the land was cleared by humans and most of the mounds are actually in the Forrest and were only discovered after the land was cleared.

I’ve heard that an ant often eats, shoots, and leaves.

That is only the black and white ants!

I thought that it was Pandas that did that?

So they eat roots and leaves?

No wonder they always seem to leave early at parties.

Scientists have calculated that termites alone produce ten times as much carbon dioxide as all the fossil fuels burned in the whole world in a year. Pound for pound, the weight of all the termites in the world is greater than the total weight of humans.

No they haven’t. Nothing has ever suggested that termites produce ten times as much CO2 as humans. In fact humans probably produce much more CO2 than termites.

If you can produce any evidence to contradict that I’ll be interested, but your link is just to a series of fun facts from an old website for a termite detection company is not exactly scientific evidence.

There is a link in the link provided to a science article here: > Abstract

“Termites may emit large quantities of methane, carbon dioxide, and molecular hydrogen into the atmosphere. Global annual emissions calculated from laboratory measurements could reach 1.5 x 10**14 grams of methane and 5 x 10**16 grams of carbon dioxide.”

Only mentioned in the comments. That Science article is from 1982, it gives an estimated value of CO2 from termites that is less than twice current rate of human emissions. It was quickly dismissed as exaggerating termite emissions, possibly by a factor of 10.

Also, note that the iceagenow article also says,

It is thought “There are 2,600 different species of termites, and it is estimated that there are at least a million billion individual termites on Earth, that they emit two and four percent of the global carbon dioxide and methane budget, respectively

-both mediated directly or indirectly by their microbes.

That’s directly contradicting the 10x claim. This probably comes from this paper

which puts annual termite output as 3.5 Gt, not much more than a tenth of annual human emissions.

Termite and ant CO2 emmissions are uncertain but likely underestimated:

There is a factor of

40 between the annual respiration of humans of CO2 and the production of CO2 by burning fossil fuels: resp.

40 GtCO2 (1Gt = 1 pg = 10**15 g).

Oh, my, my …… the finding and reporting of the ….. Termite colony the size of Great Britain ….. enhances and supports these claimed “facts” of several years ago, to wit:

• Termites produce more Carbon Dioxide (CO2) each year than all other living things combined.
• Scientists have calculated that termites alone produce ten times as much carbon dioxide as all the fossil fuels burned in the whole world in a year.
• Scientists estimate that, worldwide, termites may release over 150 million tons of methane gas into the atmosphere annually. In our lower atmosphere this methane then reacts to form carbon dioxide and ozone.
• It is estimated that for every human on Earth there may be 1000 pounds of termites.”

Some mention has been made that methane is responsible for a lot of CO2. Although in print most scientists phrase the relationship as “CO2 equivalent” (eCO2).

On another recent thread I pointed out the standard formula for calculating methane emissions’ influence (“eCO2”) used in most exising climate models involves a substanial mathematical error. Anyone interested in the kinetics of methane can tackle (2018) Frank,Jockel,Gromor& Dameris “Invesigating the yield H2O and H2 from methane oxidation in the stratosphere”; oiginally published in journal Atmopheric Chemistry and Physics., availble as free full pdf on-line.

Having read some other comments I will add the following here if anyone might find it relevant

It is -OH (hydroxyl) radicals (atmospheric UV creates these) that “oxidize” an amount estimated to be at least 90% of methane emissions. Which is to say, the simple written formula commonly cited of methane CH4 + oxygen O2 –> CO2 + H4 is misleading mathematically. I do not have any formula to propose how much of methane carbon C ends up incorporated into CO2 in the atmosphere however, so if anyone does maybe they would state that.

There is 5 – 10% of methane emissions that diffuse back into the topsoil (if aerobic). There, bacteria that are aerobic can oxidize that methane to CO2. There are several parameters that influence this dynamic of course; for example severely dry &/or poorly diffusive top soil convert relatively less methane to CO2.

Wikipedia gives termite methane emissions as 11% of the total. Methane is converted to CO2 in the atmosphere eventually

Termites Yum for the Tum!

7 Insects You’ll Be Eating in the Future:

Want to get rid of the termites gnawing at your floorboards? Just do like they do in South America and Africa: Take advantage of the rich nutritional quality of these insects by frying, sun-drying, smoking or steaming termites in banana leaves.

Termites generally consist of up to 38 percent protein, and one particular Venezuelan species, Syntermes aculeosus, is 64 percent protein. Termites are also rich in iron, calcium, essential fatty acids and amino acids such as tryptophan.

Genuinely made LOL.

Want flies with that?

Very difficult to get past the phrase “‘. . . has been being built since . . .” in the article’s title. The English, it burns!

Nothing wrong with that. You prefer “…has been under construction since the dawn of the pyramids…?”

Nothing wrong with “has been being built since”?

Did you leave a /sarc tag out from your reply?

And I’ll be the first to defend the guy for having made a mistake when editing, it’s easy to reorder a sentence on a PC and screw up the entire sentence with words left in or accidentally removed, what’s bad is defending it as acceptable English.

Everyone got what he was saying and passed by the bad grammar as a mistake we have all made, but that doesn’t make it right.

Sage advice in communication, as in other things: seek simplicity.

Ergo, I would have recommended simply “. . . built since . . .”

Hmmm. Check my maths because I’ve been wrong before, but…
The stated volume of the termite excavations is 10 cubic kilometers.
The area of Great Britain is

209331 square kilometers.
Spread over Great Britain the depth of the termite colony would thus be 0.000047777 kilometers, or less than 5 centimeters. Seems like some exaggeration has taken place.

I suppose these days we are supposed to be grateful if the media report a number that is only wrong within a factor of 100.

According to the paper the array of mounds cover an estimated area of 230,000 square kilometers, so bigger than the area of Great Britain.

Being able to spread all the excavated soil over GB to a depth of 5cm seems quite impressive to me.

More pseudo science.

“Researchers in northeast Brazil sampled soil in 11 locations and found that some of it began nearly four thousand years ago.”

1) “Oh look!, this soil is nearly four thousands years old”
– a) “The termites living here must’ve been the same ones living here nearly four thousand years ago!”
– b) “See! All of the termites are the same species!”
– c) “See! All of these other termite mounds must be the same termites as four thousand years ago!”

Once again, association is promoted to correlation.
Correlation is promoted to causation.

And here, I thought each termite mound was one queen and her workers. Queen dies, a new queen moves in and takes over.

Plus the anti-meat eaters want that we should eating the buggers.
Surely, one of those anti-meat eaters is working on a plan to harvest termites from those mounds…

Hi A.T.K., – Among the fungus cultivating termites it seems some of their mounds have different termite colonies inside. One studied mound had the termite species Macrotermes michaelsemi established down low & up high a Microtermes sp. I haven’t investigated what the origonal post termites are, but I think the keep cool during the Brazilian day insulted within the mound & come out when cool after sun goes down to fetch back leaves.

More A.T.K., – As fish feed termites were investigated with some merit. In Table 2 termite meal composition can be found, in Table 4 their amino acids & Table 5 result of growth & nutrient utilization published by the following (2008) research. Free full pdf is available on-line of “Nutritional evaluation of termite … meal as animal protein supplements in the diets of Heterobranchus longifilis … fingerling.

My old link wasn’t working so I had to fiddle around on this dinky tablet to give it’s full title;otherwise I’d have placed this with my initial reply. Am not tryng to bombard you.

Kip Hansen, — this one’s for you (& your many readers, if interested). Hopefully you’ll see this or WUWT moderator will alert you.

The Tamil Nadu team of Thilagavathi, Gomathi & Kumar’s research (2018) is available as free full pdf on-line. See the self-explanatory titled “An approach to low density polyethylene (LDPE) biodegradation by Xylaria sp. from termite garden.”

I had an old mound of soil in my backyard. When I dug it, I disturbed 3 ant nest of three different species. It was a blood bath.

So you played the role of the gods in the Iliad, setting the human tribes to fighting.

“Termite activity also results in the production of carbon dioxide (CO2). These CO2 emissions are part of the regular carbon cycle, and as such should not be included in a greenhouse gas emissions inventory.”

Above drivel from the EPA. The report goes on to grossly underestimate the methane production, all the while treating termite methane as if it were not part of the “regular carbon cycle”.

Termite Carbon, like soil microbial Carbon (and all biologically processed Carbon), will filter in favor of the lighter isotope, 12C. Also like soil microbial Carbon, termite Carbon production is sensitive to temperature. This is why we cannot be sure how much atmospheric CO2 increase is human, even though we are certainly contributing to the increase.

Methane is typically produced anaerobically, even by termites, lending further doubt to the notion that Oxygen depletion can be used to gauge human contribution of Carbon to the atmosphere.

Methane is biologically valuable low entropy Carbon. Humans use it for domestic and indutrial energy . Many other creatures use it for energy as well. A vast underground anaerobic world produces methane as a waste product that is valuable in the aerobic world much as carbohydrate respiration produces CO2 that is valuable to plants. Just another biological symmetry that sustains life on this planet.

Quoting the “quote” quoted by: Gordon Lehman – November 22, 2018 at 8:08 pm

“Termite activity also results in the production of carbon dioxide (CO2). These CO2 emissions are part of the regular carbon cycle, and as such should not be included in a greenhouse gas emissions inventory.”

Of course not, ……. thus all of the calculated yearly increases in atmospheric CO2 ppm can then be designated as being anthropogenic.

Discovered after the comment that the website Malaga Bay took the same inane EPA report and quote to task very thoroughly in a 2015 post, “Eradicating Termites with the Stroke of a Pen”.

They will take over everywhere. We’re doomed.

Yes but do termites also see the rise in atmospheric CO2 as a catastrophic problem that will wipe-out all creation?
And are they taking mitigations to cut their emissions?

This natural world is far more flexible and resilient than our current batch of weather worriers and consensus scientists make of it, here is some of the things forests can do…

It does appear that the American’s *need* their half-price televisions. Certainly not worthy of lining up in a crowd or getting in a physical fight over one…

Nuke the entire site from orbit–it’s the only way to be sure

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