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ESF Professor Leads $1.3M Research Project

Study focuses on structure, function of termite mounds

Dr. Scott Turner

ESF Professor J. Scott Turner is the lead scientist on an international team of researchers that has received a $1.35 million grant to explore the basic science of the structure and function of termite mounds.

The funding from the Human Frontiers Science Program (HFSP) builds on Turner's pioneering research on the famous mound-building termites of southern Africa.

These termites have long been an inspiration for biomimetic architecture, which seeks to harness wind to control climate in buildings by emulating these termites' mounds. Architects are currently hampered in these goals by a lack of basic knowledge of how these mounds actually work and how termites work together in swarms to build the complex architecture that underlies the mound's function.

The current project is titled "From swarm intelligence to living buildings: Novel concepts of managing internal climates."

It will explore the basic science of termite mound structure and function, including advanced fluid mechanics, robotics, engineering and robotic construction methods, the neurobiology of insect swarms and ecology and natural history of termites.

The funding will allow the team of researchers to carry out an innovative mix of theoretical, laboratory and field studies in India, Namibia and the United States. The project includes an incentive for scientific training of students and scholars in both India and Namibia.

The team of scientists and engineers includes Dr. L. Mahadevan of Harvard University's Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Design (fluid mechanics and robotics), Dr. Rupert Soar of Greenwich University in England (engineering and robotic construction), Dr. Sanjay Sane of the National Centre for Biological Sciences in Bangalore, India (insect swarms); and Dr. Eugene Marais of the National Museum of Namibia (ecology and natural history of termites).

The HFSP is is an international program of research support implemented by the International Human Frontier Science Program Organization (HFSPO) based in Strasbourg, France. Its aims are to promote intercontinental collaboration and training in cutting-edge, interdisciplinary research focused on the life sciences. HFSPO receives financial support from the governments or research councils of Australia, Canada, France, Germany, India, Italy, Japan, Republic of Korea, New Zealand, Norway, Switzerland, UK, USA, as well as from the European Union.

Turner's work has been featured in articles in Natural History, Conservation Magazine and The New Scientist and in natural history documentaries such as David Attenborough's acclaimed Life in the Undergrowth, featured on the BBC. He is the author of two books on biological structure: The Extended Organism, The Physiology of Animal-Built Structures (2000) and The Tinkerer's Accomplice, How Design Emerges from Life Itself (2007), both published by Harvard University Press.