This ‘wonder of the Earth’ is the size of Minnesota and built by bugs

A mound field in Brazil. The mounds are found in dense, low and dry forest caatinga vegetation and can be seen when the land is cleared for pasture. (Roy Funch)

By Ben Guarino

In northeastern Brazil, in a forest so dry that the trees blanch bone-white, termites have been busy at work for millennia. The only external signs of their labor are dirt mounds, garbage dumps from their underground excavations. Dirt and garbage normally inspire as much awe as toenail clippings — but these are truly marvelous slag piles.

The conical mounds, each about 8 feet tall and 30 feet wide, erupt from the ground at regular intervals, spaced about 60 feet from each of six neighbors. From the air, the pattern evokes a checkerboard or the hexagonal combs in a beehive. A satellite map, via Google Earth, indicates the mounds cover more than 88,000 square miles, an area larger than Minnesota.

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Remoteness and poor soil are the very qualities that enable the termite mounds to endure. The area has long droughts, said University at Buffalo geographer Eun-Hye Yoo, an author of the study. (Yoo also met Funch in a Brazilian tourist town. “It’s a good place to meet people,” he said.) The climate, though not friendly to human agriculture, is stable. In this harsh environment, the termite kingdom flourishes.

 

Published November 19

The Washington Post

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