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How termites act together as a super organism

What is a super organism, you may ask. Yes, as in animal. And before all of you start imaging an animal that has the ability to leap of tall buildings, wears a cape and has an S on its chest, no, no that is not what a super organism is… So what exactly is one and how do termites act together as one?

Super organism: A super organism is, not surprisingly, an organism consisting of many organisms. The term is most often used when talking about a social unit of eusocial animals, animals such as termites, ants and bees, where the division of labour is highly specialised and individuals are not able to survive by themselves for extended periods. In most super organisms the majority of the individuals have also given up the ability to reproduce. They are in effect, generally enormous families with a mother and father (often called the queen and king) and many thousands and even millions of brothers and sisters. Technically speaking a super organism is “a collection of agents which can act in concert to produce phenomena governed by the collective,” with the phenomena generally being any activity “the hive wants” such as termites choosing a new nest site.

How do termites live as a super organism? So how exactly do termites manage this? Well there are a number of fascinating aspects to the termite that enable this super organism to exist. First let’s talk about their division into castes. You probably already know that termites have royals, soldiers and workers. These castes all have a very specific role in the super organism and they can be analogised to parts of the human body. The workers are virtually every cell in the body, but let’s think of them as the red blood cells. They take the oxygen (read food) all around the body, helping the super organism stay alive. The soldiers are like the white blood cells, when there is something attacking the body, they strike, sacrificing themselves to protect the super organism. And finally, the royals are basically the genitals, reproducing to continue the super organism (though they could also be the bone marrow in this little analogy, producing more red and white blood cells).

The other key aspect of the termite’s ability to work as one is their use of pheromones. Pheromones are scent chemicals and the blind termites use them to communicate with one another. They have a wide array of these chemicals that all signal various things. They are able to secrete pheromones onto key paths and areas and this tells the other termites what they need to do there. Speaking of which, the pheromones work in conjunction with something that scientists call ‘swarm logic’, which is basically a set of simple rules that all termites know that enable them to understand what each pheromone means.

So that is what a super organism is and how the termite lives as one.

Posted in termites

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