Termites are the biggest animal excavator in the world. They dig underground tunnels to live in, heaping the waste dirt into piles to form massive towers. Some termite mounds can reach 17 feet high. But they aren’t insect apartment buildings. Many termite species build mounds to manage the airflow and help cool and heat the colony underground.
Researchers working in Brazil discovered an area two years ago covered in evenly spaced termite mounds. Each of the 10-foot-high towers were spaced roughly 70 feet apart over an area the size of Minnesota. These termites use the mounds differently: to transport leaves they collect and eat to their subterranean tunnels. Stephen Martin is an entomologist who studies insects at the University of Salford in the United Kingdom. While studying the mounds, Martin found that the termites may have started working on the mega structures 4,000 years ago!
The dirt is “just waste material being thrown out, and you have this nice mathematical relationship that the more you throw out, the higher [the mound] gets and the wider it gets as well. It’s the friction that holds the soil particles together,” says Martin. Since it rarely rains in the area, the mounds barely erode, leaving the ancient structures intact.