Termites drum warning of impending danger


A termite that builds giant mounds such as this one in Namibia can alert members of the colony to predators. (Danita Delimont/Gallo Images via Getty Images)
African termites drum with their heads to warn others that danger is near

Humans have used drumming to relay messages across large distances for millennia — but they aren’t alone in this. It seems that some species of termite do the same, by bashing their heads on the ground to signal danger.

The African termite Macrotermes natalensis builds giant mounds in the savanna on top of vast networks of tunnels that radiate to their foraging sites. Soldier termites protect the mounds and produce a drumming noise to warn of an approaching aardvark or pangolin.

To find out how they do this, German researchers pointed high-speed cameras at the central chamber of a termite mound, then opened it. The soldier termites responded by bashing their heads into the ground around 11 times per second, causing it to vibrate.

Next, they measured how far the vibrations from one termite traveled and found that beyond 15 inches, the ground no longer moved enough for other termites to pick up the signal. Yet termites that were much farther away responded to the signal: Workers, for instance, returned to the nest.

It turns out that when soldier termites pick up a drumming alarm, they begin drumming their own heads.

The termites respond to only a specific frequency of vibrations. When the researchers put individual termites into petri dishes and made them vibrate at different frequencies, they found that nearby termites stopped what they were doing and appeared to pay attention only when the vibration patterns recorded in the wild were re-created.

New Scientist

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