Surface curvature guides early construction activity in mound-building termites

Kavli Affiliate: Radhika Nagpal

| First 5 Authors: Daniel S. Calovi, Paul Bardunias, Nicole Carey, J. Scott Turner, Radhika Nagpal

| Summary:

Termite colonies construct towering, complex mounds, in a classic example of
distributed agents coordinating their activity via interaction with a shared
environment. The traditional explanation for how this coordination occurs
focuses on the idea of a "cement pheromone", a chemical signal left with
deposited soil that triggers further deposition. Recent research has called
this idea into question, pointing to a more complicated behavioral response to
cues perceived with multiple senses. In this work, we explored the role of
topological cues in affecting early construction activity in Macrotermes. We
created artificial surfaces with a known range of curvatures, coated them with
nest soil, placed groups of major workers on them, and evaluated soil
displacement as a function of location at the end of one hour. Each point on
the surface has a given curvature, inclination, and absolute height; to
disambiguate these factors, we conducted experiments with the surface in
different orientations. Soil displacement activity is consistently correlated
with surface curvature, and not with inclination nor height. Early exploration
activity is also correlated with curvature, to a lesser degree. Topographical
cues provide a long-term physical memory of building activity in a manner that
ephemeral pheromone labeling cannot. Elucidating the roles of these and other
cues for group coordination may help provide organizing principles for swarm
robotics and other artificial systems.

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