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Seismologist Termites
Apr 1, 2006

All living organisms have the peculiar feature of being equipped with special biological devices that warn and inform them about the changes occurring in the environment in which they live. These organisms have been fitted out with magnificently complex communication networks which are operated, controlled, and regulated by a structure as much complex. These complex networks are designed with such accurate, compatible, and flexible measurements that living organisms can easily adapt themselves to the environment and continue reproduction. In all systems, beginning from the cell, the smallest functional unit of an organism, up until the ecosystem and the bio-globe, there are interrelated rings of communication networks. Communication seen in living creatures at organism level has a semiotical character and helps protect individual beings in a community from illness and predators.

Termites, one of the most common insects in the ecosystem, have very interesting specifications and social behaviors. These insects are of interest due to their ability to digest cellulose and to recycle organic foods found in rotten leaves, dead wood or wood chips. Although they are considered by some to be harmful to the economy-in the USA alone 600 million dollars every year-because they eat wood, in truth they bring about more benefit than harm. As a result of the activities of these insects, our forests are able to respire and regenerate. Termites break down old, decayed, and fallen trees, digesting them and thus helping nature to renew with a continuous circulation of vital substances. Despite the depth of information that is known about the ecological and economical importance of termites, only a little is known about their biological structure and behavior. Two characteristic features of these insects are that they live in social colonies and that they are very susceptible to infections, as they build their nests in soil or rotten wood. Since their environment is covered with damp and warm earth, they are also surrounded by an abundance of bacteria.

How termites arrange their social lives and how they protect themselves against illness are two main subjects being investigated by biological scientists. When termites encounter fatal fungal infections, the termites that first become aware of the disease start to send warning signals to the other members of the colony. Even at the cost of their lives, these members will continue to send warning signals. That is, for the health and prosperity of the whole society, some individuals of the group will sacrifice their own lives. One of these signals consists of the contractions and vibrations sent by the termite that caught the disease. One type of termite that makes its nest in wood starts to eat and destroy its nest when it catches an infection. The vibrations and sound of this activity are received by the other members of the colony, and they quickly realize that they are faced with an emergency situation. They then spring into action to move their nest to a more secure place. These communication experts exhibit different movements and behavior in order to inform others of different kinds of dangers. They use different methods to warn others about the existence of an intruder, or a hole in the nest, or a disease they have caught. Consequently, the vibrations and oscillations caused by the movements of the termites constitute a kind of Morse code for termites. In other words, termites talk to each other through these oscillations and vibrations, which to us appear as no more than a strange puzzle for us.

J. Traniello from Boston University investigated the communication systems termites use to inform each other about disease-making microorganisms as his research subject (Mechanisms of Disease Response in Termites) . He made a rectangular shaped Perspex (clear acrylic) nest which he has divided into two sections. The material used for the divisions allowed the termites to pass from side to side. Moreover, some tubes were also placed around the nest so that the termites could leave the nest. He placed termites in both of the sections. After an adaptation period, one part of the nest was infected by spores of a fatal fungus called Metahizium anisopliae, with the change in the behavior of the insects being observed and recorded. Termites that sensed the infected parts of the section started to move their bodies up and down and back and forth, as if they were breathing deeply and continued to depict seismic waves like oscillations and vibrations. Termites in the clean part of the nest felt these vibrations and within an hour had completely abandoned the nest. An interesting observation in the experiment was that the termites in the infected part stayed in the nest and continued to vibrate. In order to determine that the termites left the nest only after receiving the vibrations sent by the termites that had detected the infection, sound absorbent foams were placed between the sections, and the same experiment was carried out three times more. In the experiments conducted with the absorbent foam, despite the existence of the disease, the termites in the uninfected sections did not leave the nest. This proves that termites were receiving the vibrations from the infected termites and were replying to them by immediately deserting the nest.

It was thought that the termites in the infected area would also leave the nest after sending messages to the termites in the other section. This hypothesis, however, proved to be false. They stayed where they were and continued sending warning signals until they died. This was another example of the sacrifice observed in social insects that give up their own lives for the continuation of their society. The termite perceives the existence of a fatal bacteria attack and immediately starts to send warning signals; and by not abandoning their nest, they successfully put into effect a quarantine system. These social insects, without any intelligence, apply the quarantine system in such a precise manner that the disease is completely prevented from spreading. What is more, by sacrificing themselves for their society, they show that the principle of “if a person’s endeavor is for his nation, that person becomes a miniature nation on his own” is not only valid for human beings.

Ants, using a different method than termites, synthesize bacteria eliminating chemicals in their saliva glands that protect them from infectious diseases. These chemical combinations are very effective against bacteria and fungi. Ants protect themselves by covering their bodies with these substances at certain intervals. Termites, although in appearance not very different from ants, do not produce antiseptic substances in their bodies. Termites use a different strategy by establishing a symbiotic relationship with the bacteria that live in their intestines. Some termites that feed on decayed wood need enzymes to digest the cellulose. The cellulose needed by termites is synthesized by the bacteria in their intestines and turned into sugar. Thus, termites receive the glucose they need for survival and bacteria are provided with a comfortable berth in the bodies of the termites. Because of this symbiotic relationship, the production of fatal antibiotics that would kill the bacteria would be harmful to the termites themselves.

Instead of producing chemical compounds or antibiotics like ants, the seismic movements and self-sacrificing behavior depicted by the termites has given scientists the idea that it may be possible to benefit from termites as an early warning system for earthquakes. This idea is reflected in the Holy Qur’an, chapter Naml (The Ant), verse 18:

Until, when they reached a valley of ants, one of the ants said: “O you ants! Get into your dwellings lest Solomon and his army crush you unawares.”

This verse shows us the sensitivity of ants to vibrations. They have organs in their feet that are sensitive to movement. For one of those ants to have been able to warn the other ants, it must either have seen or sensed the coming of Prophet Solomon’s army. As obviously an ant cannot see an army coming from a long distance, they must have felt the vibrations made by the feet of the soldiers. We know that sound waves move very fast and are strong in solid objects. Because of this, by placing an ear onto railway track one can hear the vibrations of a train from far away. Termites most likely have an organ that receives vibrations that is similar to that of ants, because if a species can produce a signal (e.g. light, sound, or vibrations) for communication, they must also have an organ that is capable of receiving this signal. Since termites communicate with vibrations, they must also have an organ that is sensitive to weak vibrations. From this respect, if the code that is based upon some of the behaviors and vibrations used by the termites can be decoded, then are techniques of predicting earthquakes can be considerably improved.