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News > Science and Tech

Brazil: 4,000-Year-Old Termite Civilization Baffles Scientists

  • Researchers are still in search of the termite

    Researchers are still in search of the termite "queen" which they say will unlock further mysteries about the colony. | Photo: EFE

Published 22 November 2018

The untouched ancient insect colony has constructed a sea of massive "pyramids" over thousands of years which can be seen from space. 

A team of researchers has found 200 million small pyramids built by termites in Northeastern Brazil some 4,000 years ago. It is one of the most significant works created by an animal species that humans have discovered to date.

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"I don't think anyone has ever seen such a modification of the landscape at such a huge scale by such tiny little creatures," Professor Funch of the Feira de Santana State University, Bahia, told EFE.

The sea of mounds stretch the expanse of an area the size of Great Britain and can be seen from satellites. The mounds themselves are made of a hard ceramic-like material and are organized in a checkerboard pattern some 20 meters apart. They reach three meters high and extend nine meters in diameter.

They have gone largely untouched as the impoverished rural area is miles from any city and has been covered by a very dense vegetation called catinga, a type of desert vegetation.

The mounds themselves are just what is on the surface, constructed grain by grain from these tiny creatures. Underneath is a network of underground tunnels.

"Imagine it being a city," Stephen J. Martin, an entomologist and expert in social insects at the University of Salford, England, told the Chicago Tribune. "We've never built a city that big."

Studies of the phenomenon have brought together professors from universities in England, the United States and Brazil.

Details of the discovery have been reported after seven years of research in an article by the scientific journal "Current Biology." Studies on the ancient termite city are ongoing.

So far, what is known about this species, "syntermes dirus", is that the termites are extremely sensitive to dryness and sun and very likely to be eaten by other animals -- despite having razor-sharp jaws that can cut through skin and draw blood, according to entomologist Martin.

At night, the insects surface in groups of ten to fifty members. They take food and rapidly return to their underground home, closing up the entrance to the small tunnel in the process.

The investigation continues with a search for the civilization’s queen.

"We know there is one, but nobody has ever seen it, and it is very important because if we arrive at the queen's house, we will understand much better the system they have developed," Funche said.
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