UB geographer finds pattern in vast, ancient network of termite mounds

This image shows mound fields. The mounds are found in dense, low, dry forest caatinga vegetation and can be seen when the land is cleared for pasture. Photo: Roy Funch


In 2012, UB geography researcher Eun-Hye “Enki” Yoo took an overnight bus to Lençóis, a remote tourist town in northeastern Brazil.

She wanted to go hiking. But while she was there, she also embarked on a second, serendipitous adventure, this one scientific.

Roy R. Funch, a biologist at the Universidade Estadual de Feira de Santana in Brazil, had heard that Yoo — an expert in geographic information science (GIS) — was in Lençóis. He tracked her down and asked if she might lend her skills to a study of nearby termite mounds.

The two scientists drove out together to see the earthen structures. That impromptu trip led to a research project that made international headlines this November.

It turns out that the mounds they viewed are a part of a vast ancient network. About 200 million of the structures are spread out over more than 88,000 square miles (an area the size of Minnesota, as reported by The Washington Post).

Each mound is about 8 feet tall and 30 feet wide. To make all of them, generations of termites had to displace about 2.4 cubic miles of dirt — equivalent in volume to about 4,000 of the great pyramids of Giza.

According to a news release posted by the research team to EurekAlert, “the mounds, which are easily visible on Google Earth, are not nests. Rather, they are the result of the insects’ slow and steady excavation of a network of interconnected underground tunnels.” In other words, as The New York Times put it, they are “garbage piles.”


Published January 3, 2019

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