Monday, July 12, 2010

Mother Nature's Bioreactor

Imagine a million, blindfolded, 11 year olds building a skyscraper that covers eight city blocks and measures 2 kilometers in height. A pretty horrific thought, but when accomplished by one of Mother Nature's creatures it becomes an amazing engineering feat.  
Visitors may be drawn to Litchfield National Park's waterholes, but they don't want to miss the area's magnificent termite mounds. We aren't talking about a few small ant piles, but rather a series of protective fortresses that are built with grains of earth that are cemented together with termite saliva. The park's landscape is covered with innumerable dirt structures that vary in size and shape. Visitors will see knee-high piles, football size cones, enormous buttresses, and towering monoliths. The distinct physical characteristic of each mound is determined by the species of termite that has constructed it. The largest of the mounds are built by the  cathedral termite and can measure up to 6 meters high. However, it is not the sheer size that is the most impressive feature of the mounds, but instead the fact that the atmosphere within the mound is maintained between 25 to 30 degrees celcius. This is accomplished through the use of evaporative moisture cooling systems, solar collection, and the use of thermal mass for heat retention. A monumental architectural feat for a soft-bodied, ant-like insect.
Wow, all of this without MIT degrees.  

Cathedral Termite Mound

A second species of termites found in the park are magnetic termites. Temperature is also a driving factor in the construction of their mounds. Rather than creating massive structures, the magnetic termites build an edifice that resembles an enormous, sculptural tombstone. However, it is not just the structure that is critical in the thermoregulation of the mound, but it also involves the careful alignment of the mound.  Hence all magnetic termite mounds are perfectly aligned, north to south. The structure and positioning of the mound allows the sun to warm a larger surface area during the cooler mornings, evenings and winter months, raising the internal temperature of the mound.  Then during the heat of the day, due to the mounds narrow profile, less surface area is exposed and less heat is absorbed.

Magnetic Termite Mounds

Profile Magnetic Termite Mound

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