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Thousand-Year-Old Termite Mounds Span an Area the Size of Great Britain and Can
--- Quote ---For some 4,000 years, termites have been building a massive and magnificent structure in northeastern Brazil, and until recently, it's been a well-kept secret.
Scientists have uncovered tens of millions of mysterious cones made of soil, each standing 6 to 13 feet high and 30 feet across at the base, in a largely undisturbed region of Brazil, according to a new paper in Current Biology.
Using satellite imagery, biologist Roy Funch estimated the colossal collection of termite mounds covers over 88,000 square miles — an area roughly the size of Great Britain or the entire state of Oregon — and takes up as much space as 4,000 Great Pyramids.
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"Imagine it being a city," study lead author Stephen Martin told the Washington Post. "We've never built a city that big."
Because each of the mounds sits some 60 feet from its next closest neighbor, it's difficult to grasp the sheer size of the 200 million mounds from the ground.
Martin argues that if the trees and vegetation that have kept the mounds hidden for so long were to vanish, the structure would be known as a natural "wonder of the Earth."
The lighter land seen in this Google Earth image is where vegetation has been cleared, allowing researchers to spot the termite mounds from space.
"For scale, the termite mounds occupy an area roughly equivalent to the Great Barrier Reef – a multiple-species bioengineering feat," Funch told Science Alert. "The mounds we report on are built by a single species of termite."
If you're wondering what the mounds were made for, the answer is nothing. Contrary to how they might look, the mounds aren't nests. They're piles of leftover dirt shoveled out by termites digging an immense underground tunnel system — essentially waste.
"This vast permanent tunnel network allows safe access to a sporadic food supply, similar to Heterocephalus naked-mole rats that also live in arid regions and construct very extensive burrow networks to obtain food," wrote the researchers.
Recently cleared land gave researchers a great view of the mound using Google Earth, and once Martin and his team were able to view the area themselves, they could tell how special the superstructure was.
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“It used to be all green and brown, but around eight years ago, Google Earth sharpened their images, and I could see the mounds that I had known from the ground,” said Funch.
Sand grains from the center of 11 of the mounds, also known as murundus, found the youngest sample to be 690 years old and the oldest 3,820 years old, comparable to the oldest known termite mounds in the world. Funch, however, thinks much older ones exist among the millions of mounds.
"The scale is beyond belief," said Martin. "People don't believe the scale, it's so big ... it's truly mind-bending."
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