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Mon Nov 19, 2018, 04:41 PM

For 4,000 Years, Termites Have Been Building Something Incredible in Brazil

For 4,000 Years, Termites Have Been Building Something Incredible in Brazil
Their huge mounds cover an area the size of Britain, and are visible from space.
Ed Yong
11:00 AM ET

In the east of Brazil, mysterious cones of earth rise from the dry, hard-baked soil. Each of these mounds is about 30 feet wide at its base, and stands six to 13 feet tall. From the ground, with about 60 feet of overgrown land separating each mound from its neighbors, it’s hard to tell how many there are. But their true extent becomes dramatically clear from space.

Using satellite images, Roy Funch from the State University of Feira de Santana has estimated that there are about 200 million of these mounds. They’re arrayed in an uncannily regular honeycomb-like pattern. Together, they cover an area roughly the size of Great Britain or Oregon, and they occupy as much space as the Great Pyramid of Giza 4,000 times over. And this colossal feat of engineering is, according to Funch, the work of the tiniest of engineers—a species of termite called Syntermes dirus, whose workers are barely half an inch long.

Termites are well known for creating elaborate nests, with vast networks of underground tunnels. Many species create skyscraping chimneys atop these lairs to ventilate the underground chambers, and in some African species, these mounds can tower 30 feet high. But the Brazilian mounds are neither chimneys nor nests. They’re just amorphous lumps of soil, with no internal structures. Nothing lives inside them. Instead, “they’re just slag piles,” says Funch.

The local termites create extensive subterranean labyrinths of tunnels, and they eject whatever soil they don’t need on the surface. The process is slow and gradual, but the termites have been at it for millennia. They’re more like a geological force than an organism. Just as rivers or glaciers sculpt the landscape around them, so too have these tiny insects sculpted some 90,000 square miles of Brazil into a junkyard that’s visible from space.

These mounds are known as murundus, and rather confusingly, they’re different from other mounds called campos de murundus. The latter are found in the wet, savanna-like areas of southern and central Brazil instead of the dry northeast, and it’s not clear whether they’re built by termites at all. Campos de murundus have also been well studied for decades; by contrast, the northeastern murundus, though well known by locals, have been largely neglected by scientists.

Funch first saw them three decades ago, when he arrived in Brazil as a Peace Corps volunteer. After an unsatisfying stint doing administrative work in the nation’s capital, he found a more compelling life in Lençóis, a former diamond-mining town in the east. Surrounded by forests, waterfalls, and caves, Funch became a tour guide, national-park director, and environmentalist. And wherever he went, he kept noticing the striking mounds. He wrote about them in local popular-science magazines, but never managed to stoke much interest in them.



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Reply For 4,000 Years, Termites Have Been Building Something Incredible in Brazil (Original post)
babylonsister Nov 2018 OP
jberryhill Nov 2018 #1
912gdm Nov 2018 #2
OilemFirchen Nov 2018 #3

Response to babylonsister (Original post)

Mon Nov 19, 2018, 04:51 PM

1. "visible from space"

That phrase perplexes me.

What does it mean for something to be "visible from space"?

Where in space? Certainly, there are some places in space where such things are not visible. Or, looking at it another way, anything which is visible from anywhere in space is "visible from space" since there is no place which is not in "space", broadly speaking.

Satellites routinely have cameras which can resolve objects down to a foot or below. Is this supposed to mean that it is visible to the naked eye somewhere in some definition of "space"? And why would your naked eye be in space anyway?

It's a completely meaningless phrase which is supposed to convey some sort of "really big", but what it usually indicates is a profound shallowness of thought.

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Response to jberryhill (Reply #1)

Mon Nov 19, 2018, 06:25 PM

2. can't see the forest through the trees.

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Response to jberryhill (Reply #1)

Mon Nov 19, 2018, 06:38 PM

3. The Google is your friend:

In most cases, "visible from space" means that is visible from Low Earth orbit (for example, from the International Space Station) with the naked eye. This is, without the aid of telescopes, binoculars or camera zoom lenses.


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