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Didjano?® << Back
THE TERMITE COMPASS

If you were lost in some parts of Northern Australia, it wouldn’t take you long to work out the direction of magnetic north; just find one of the thousands of termite mounds that dot certain parts of the landscape. 

Often (incorrectly) called ant-hills, these mounds are unique in that the termites - with unexplained abilities - always build them in perfect alignment to north and south. These mounds are also architectural masterpieces with intricate tunnels, archways, bridges, nurseries for the newborn, chambers for the king and queen, and even a graveyard at the top. Large mounds can be several times the height of an adult human and contain tens (and sometimes hundreds) of thousands of termites. By comparison, the skyscrapers of our world seem a little less impressive. 

The thin-skinned termites can only survive in temperatures that do not vary much from 86F (30C). The ingenious north-south construction of the mounds ensures that this temperature requirement is maintained. In the morning the western side is shaded, and in the afternoon the western side warms up while the eastern side cools. 

 

To test this theory, Dr Peter Jacklyn used a 4WD vehicle, fitted with a sturdy bull-bar, to move a mound a few degrees off the north south line. He found that the core temperature of the mound changed by several degrees; which was enough to make the temperature-fussy termites very unhappy. Naturally, the mound was moved back to its original position when the tests were completed.  

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