Researchers have crowned the mound building termite the as the top engineer of the natural world, as a new study demonstrates the ‘supremacy’ of their building techniques, and reveals that they possess ‘remarkable’ engineering skills.
The ICE said scientists had already shown that termites build their mounds in a unique way involving “bio-cementation”, a process where grains of soil are fused together into small balls with moisture, saliva and excretion.
The chemical process which follows, glues the ball together and these are used like bricks to construct mounds reaching heights of 2m or more.
New research published in the ICE Journal Environmental Geotechnics, has now shown this process makes the mounds 10 times stronger than structures made of unmodified materials or control soil, and significantly decreases the mound’s susceptibility to erosion.
It said that the research also revealed that mound building termites apply notable engineering intellect. When given materials with different sized grains to build with - from glass beads to pure clays – the termites opted for materials with a finer grain which can be packed together more tightly creating more robust balls.
Furthermore, they were able to adjust the amount of moisture used to help cement the balls, according to the material being offered to them.
Mound building termites crowned top engineers of the natural world
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The study – by the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore – involved a series of experiments examining the physical, chemical, and mechanical properties of mound soil, compared to control soil, and comparing the erodibility and stability of the mound itself. Experiments to determine the termites’ capabilities were conducted under lab conditions.
Author Ramesh Kandasami said: “Engineers have long been studying the principle of bio-cementation and how it can be used in engineering to improve structures and environmental sustainability,” he said.
“Engineers, scientists and ecologists alike have also developed a fascination for the termites that use bio-cementation to construct their mounds; impressive structures with an intricate assemblage of tunnels, cavities and chambers which are engineering feats in themselves.
“However there has been little investigation on the actual effect of bio-cementation on a termite mound’s strength and stability.”
Kandasami said that when the termites were exposed to various conditions from oven drying to compression testing, the mound soil exhibited strength of 1500kPa, compared the control soil strength of 150kPa – a tenfold increase. He said that the mound soil also showed enhanced resistance to erosion and weathering.
He added that “Our research showed the termites themselves are capable engineers – probably one of the top engineers of the natural world.
“Their behaviour is quite extraordinary, adding to the fascination of these creatures, and deepening our understanding of the termite mound phenomena. This study will hopefully provide further insight into the effectiveness of the bio-cementation process for a range of engineering structures which benefit society.”