Termite mounds as organs of extended physiology

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The macrotermitine termites build some of the most spectacular animal-built structures on the planet. Some, like the mound of Macrotermes michaelseni (shown right) are dominant landscape features over much of southern Africa. These termites control a significant portion of the flows of carbon and water through arid savanna ecosystems.

These remarkable structures are not the residence for the colony - very few termites actually are found in them. Rather, they are accessory organs of gas exchange, which serve the respiratory needs of the subterranean colony, located about a meter or two below the mound. The colony's respiratory needs are prodigious - one colony contains as many as a million worker termites and symbionts that collectively consume oxygen at about the same rate as a cow.

Functionally, these mounds are devices for capturing wind energy to power active ventilation of the nest. They are adaptive structures, continually molded by the termites to maintain the nest atmosphere. This ability confers on the colony emergent homeostasis, the regulation of the nest environment by the collective activities of the inhabitants.

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