How Termite Mounds Get Their Shape

February 12, 2019
Sketch of the model

[credit: SEAS]

Termite construction projects have no architects, engineers or foremen, and yet these centimeter-sized insects build complex, long-standing, meter-sized structures all over the world. How they do it has long puzzled scientists.

Now, researchers from [Prof. L. Mahadevan and colleagues from SEAS and OEB] have developed a simple model that shows how external environmental factors, such as daytime temperature variations, cause internal flows in the mound which move pheromone-like cues around, triggering building behavior in individual termites. Those modifications change the internal environment, triggering new behaviors and the cycle continues. The model explains how differences in the environment lead to the distinct morphologies of termite mounds in Asia, Australia, Africa, and South America.

This new framework demonstrates how simple rules linking environmental physics and animal behavior can give rise to complex structures in nature. It sheds light on broader questions of swarm intelligence and may serve as inspiration for designing more sustainable human architecture.

Continue reading "How termite mounds get their shape" by Leah Burrows, February 12, 2019. https://www.seas.harvard.edu/news/2019/02/how-termite-mounds-get-their-shape.

The research is published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences: Samuel A. Ocko, Alexander Heyde, and L. Mahadevan, "Morphogenesis of termite mounds," PNAS (February 11, 2019) https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1818759116.