Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Magnetic Termite Mounds

In Australia's Northern Territory, inside the protected Litchfield National Park, near the township of Batchelor, about 100 kilometers southwest of Darwin, termites build peculiar mounds that are mysteriously aligned to the earth’s magnetic field. Wide swathe of empty ground are filled with hundreds of termite mounds that look like tombstones from a distance, but much larger. The magnetic termite mounds rise to as much as three meters in height, look relatively flat and they all face the same direction with their thinner edges facing the north and south like the needle of a compass.

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The currently accepted hypothesis is that the precise alignment allows the termites to keep their homes comfortable. Northern Australia gets extremely hot during the day and cool at night, and researchers believe termites have somehow harnessed the power of the earth’s magnetism to strategically climate-control their homes.

Graham Brown, a former curator of insects at the Northern Territory Museum explains that these towering mounds are essentially termite apartment buildings. A single nest may contain tens of thousands of termites. To comfortably house all those insects, the mound needs to have just the right architecture. He says all the little rooms, or galleries, need the proper moisture level and a good internal temperature, and the north-south alignment of the mounds seems to help keep the termites comfortable.

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Sources: PBS, About.com

2 comments:

  1. I wondre how they are mysteriously aligned to the earth’s magnetic field.... very interesting

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    1. I believe that it is more likely that the mounds are aligned to the east and west, i.e. the rising and setting of the sun. Since the main purpose of the large structures is to be a chimney to regulate the temperature of the nest, that makes much more sense than a magnetic alignment. I see a similar behavior in common ants each spring. The build their new nests on the south facing slopes of existing hills or mounds in order to use the sun's heat to their advantage.

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