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Wall curvature dictates logic of termite nest construction

Researchers used a micro CT-scanner to collect detailed images of the inner structures of termite nests in Australia. Photo by University of Roehampton
Researchers used a micro CT-scanner to collect detailed images of the inner structures of termite nests in Australia. Photo by University of Roehampton

July 23 (UPI) -- A simple guide dictates how termites deposit the next pellet when constructing their nests -- they sense the local wall curvature -- researchers say in a new study.

Termite nests and are often vast and structurally complex. Previously, scientists have struggled to explain how thousands of individual termites coordinate the construction of such intricate nests.

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Researchers at the University of Roehampton, in Britain, hypothesized that termites are able to sense when the curvature of the local surface ceases and the wall starts to flatten, according to the study, published this week in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface.

To test their hypothesis, researchers built a nest-construction computer model and then compared it to the nest building patterns of two species of arboreal Nasutitermes, a genus of termites.

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Images captured using a micro-CT scanner allowed scientists to identify a number of structural characteristics that distinguish termite nests. Researchers found many of these defining features in the nest generated by their computer simulation.

The study showed termites are more likely to despot a new pellet where there is high curvature -- most often where there is an unfinished wall, edge or pillar.

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"Our identified building mechanism can reproduce many features of termite nests, but we are aware that different termite species can produce nests with different sizes, shapes and internal structure," lead study author Giulio Facchini said in a news release.

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"We aim to be able to further tune and parametrize our model from real data of termite nests to be able to explain how small changes in the building rules or in the building materials can produce the huge diversity of structures that we find in nature," said Facchini, a post-doctoral researcher at Roehampton.

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