4,000-year-old termite mounds are so vast they're visible from space
Long hidden under trees, it's utterly massive.
- This 4,000-year-old structure can be seen from space and wasn't built by humans.
- The mounds are made up of 200 million mounds of earth.
- They're still under construction today.
They're nearly as old as the pyramids of Giza, and far larger, the equivalent in volume of some 4,000 Great Pyramids. They weren't built by people, though. Two hundred million mounds of dirt — more than 10 cubic kilometers, or 2.6 trillion U.S. gallons, of it — together form a massive structure about the size of Great Britain. It was assembled speck by speck by Syntermes dirus termites. Tiny as they are, these insects have built something so big it can be seen from space.
"This is apparently the world's most extensive bioengineering effort by a single insect species," says co-leader of the research team biologist Roy Funch of the Universidade Estadual de Feira de Santana in Brazil. His team's study was published in Current Biology on November 19.
Where the mounds were found
(Martin, et al)
The structure is located in semi-arid northeastern Brazil, largely hidden in thorny-scrub caatinga forests. MAXENT species-distribution modeling software crunched the data on previously catalogued mounds and predicted the 230,000 square-kilometer structure's existence. This was then confirmed by ground searches and analysis of satellite imagery.
What are the mounds, anyway?
(Martin, et al)
Outline of tunnels system, size of mound compared to human, an S. dirus termite, a tunnel opening, a brooding gallery.
The conical mounds are called murundus by locals, and each one is about twice the height of an adult human, with a diameter of about 35 feet. They're spaced about 65 feet apart.
Though termites are known to build impressive above-ground houses capable of reaching 10 feet in height, these are not houses. They're essentially dirt piles, discarded earth from 4,000 years of continuous tunnel digging that's still ongoing.
Finished mounds have no internal structure to speak of, though piles that are still growing have a single central tunnel of about 10 cm in diameter leading into the ground.
The insects' vast underground network of tunnels — each tunnel about 10 cm in diameter — and narrow, horizontal galleries filled with beds of dead leaves for brood, are never exposed to the air outside. When termites venture up to the surface and out to get some decaying leaves to eat, they travel in 10–50-member groups. The foraging party emerges via thin, temporary passageways of about 8 mm that are immediately resealed after use.
To learn just how long S. dirus has been at this, the researchers collected soil samples from the centers of 11 mounds. Bathing the samples blue or green light to release ionizing radiation from mineral grains allowed them to roughly deduce the last time they'd been exposed to the sun. Optically-stimulated luminescence analysis produced the 4,000 year estimate.
Those amazing insects
(Martin, et al)
Mounds are marked with black dots on this satellite image.
Entymologist Stephen Martin of University of Salford, the other co-leader of the research, says the group of mounds "represents one of the biggest structures built by a single insect species." He concludes, "It's incredible that in this day and age you can find an 'unknown' biological wonder of this sheer size and age still existing with the occupants still present."
- Termite mounds the size of Britain discovered in Brazil — Quartz ›
- A Metropolis of 200 Million Termite Mounds Was Hidden in Plain Sight ›
- Brazil's ancient termite mounds seen from Google Earth stun scientists ›
What can 3D printing do for medicine? The "sky is the limit," says Northwell Health researcher Dr. Todd Goldstein.
- Medical professionals are currently using 3D printers to create prosthetics and patient-specific organ models that doctors can use to prepare for surgery.
- Eventually, scientists hope to print patient-specific organs that can be transplanted safely into the human body.
- Northwell Health, New York State's largest health care provider, is pioneering 3D printing in medicine in three key ways.
Elon Musk took issue with recent ideas for space exploration from Jeff Bezos.
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- Musk wants to focus on Mars while Bezos has the moon and space colonies as goals.
- In a recent tweet, Musk called out Bezos's plans for space colonies as unrealistic.
If you don't want to know anything about your death, consider this your spoiler warning.
- For centuries cultures have personified death to give this terrifying mystery a familiar face.
- Modern science has demystified death by divulging its biological processes, yet many questions remain.
- Studying death is not meant to be a morbid reminder of a cruel fate, but a way to improve the lives of the living.
- Push Past Negative Self-Talk: Give Yourself the Proper Fuel to Attack the World, with David Goggins, Former NAVY SealIf you've ever spent 5 minutes trying to meditate, you know something most people don't realize: that our minds are filled, much of the time, with negative nonsense. Messaging from TV, from the news, from advertising, and from difficult daily interactions pulls us mentally in every direction, insisting that we focus on or worry about this or that. To start from a place of strength and stability, you need to quiet your mind and gain control. For former NAVY Seal David Goggins, this begins with recognizing all the negative self-messaging and committing to quieting the mind. It continues with replacing the negative thoughts with positive ones.
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