Excavation and aggregation as organizing factors in de novo construction by mound-building termites

Ben Green, Paul Bardunias, J. Scott Turner, Radhika Nagpal, Justin Werfel

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

18 Scopus citations

Abstract

Termites construct complex mounds that are orders of magnitude larger than any individual and fulfil a variety of functional roles. Yet the processes through which these mounds are built, and by which the insects organize their efforts, remain poorly understood. The traditional understanding focuses on stigmergy, a form of indirect communication in which actions that change the environment provide cues that influence future work. Termite construction has long been thought to be organized via a putative ‘cement pheromone’: a chemical added to deposited soil that stimulates further deposition in the same area, thus creating a positive feedback loop whereby coherent structures are built up. To investigate the detailed mechanisms and behaviours through which termites self-organize the early stages of mound construction, we tracked the motion and behaviour of major workers from two Macrotermes species in experimental arenas. Rather than a construction process focused on accumulation of depositions, as models based on cement pheromone would suggest, our results indicated that the primary organizing mechanisms were based on excavation. Digging activity was focused on a small number of excavation sites, which in turn provided templates for soil deposition. This behaviour was mediated by a mechanism of aggregation, with termites being more likely to join in the work at an excavation site as the number of termites presently working at that site increased. Statistical analyses showed that this aggregation mechanism was a response to active digging, distinct from and unrelated to putative chemical cues that stimulate deposition. Agent-based simulations quantitatively supported the interpretation that the early stage of de novo construction is primarily organized by excavation and aggregation activity rather than by stigmergic deposition.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number20162730
JournalProceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences
Volume284
Issue number1856
DOIs
StatePublished - Jun 14 2017
Externally publishedYes

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology
  • General Immunology and Microbiology
  • General Environmental Science
  • General Agricultural and Biological Sciences

Keywords

  • Aggregation
  • Collective construction
  • Complex systems
  • Self-organization
  • Stigmergy
  • Termites

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