Termites, Fungus-growing

Macrotermes natalensis

The fungus-growing termite is the most common and widely distributed member of all Macrotermes in southern Africa. They live in nests that are kept a constant temperature by a remarkable piece of engineering, a spiralled mound consisting of a network of vents and tunnels set around one central chimney. As their names suggests these termites actually cultivate fungus to digest the food which they are unable to do so themselves. General facts about termites.

Kingdom : Animalia
Phylum : Anthropoda
Class : Insecta
Order : Blattodea
Infra order : Isoptera
Family : Termitidae

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The fungus-growing termites build large mounds which are typically 2 to 3 metres high. The mounds, known as termitaria, are made with a mixture of soil, saliva and faeces which dry as hard as concrete. These structures can withstand being used as a rubbing post by elephants.

Fungus-growing termites rely on fungus to digest their food into an edible compost. After the rains they will sometimes carry the spores of this fungus outside. This may be to disperse it further afield as a back up to their own supplies.

Fungus-growing termite workers will chew up and eat dead and decaying plant material. Because they are unable to fully digest it they return to the nest and excrete it. The job of digesting these faeces is done by fungi. The resulting compost is then eaten by the colony.

Fungus-growing termites work individually using a process called swarm intelligence to build complex temperature controlled mounds with specialist chambers and fungal gardens. There is no central blueprint or coordinator for this outstanding piece of engineering.

As well as an elaborate air conditioning system of hot and cold air being exchanged through a central chimney and a network of vents and tunnels there is an evaporation cooling system which the fungus-growing termite workers keep topped up with water.

A fungus-growing termite nest sits 1 m below the ground. It is kept at a constant temperature of 31 degrees centigrade by a spiralled mound which emits hot stale air through tiny holes in its walls which in turn allow cold fresh air in. This then circulates around a network of tunnels.