The discovery of a huge network of more than 200 million termite mounds, some 4,000 years old, is like finding an "unknown wonder of the world," according to the principal researcher on the team who found it.
"The first time I was there, it's unbelievable. You just can not believe what you see," said Stephen Martin, a social entomologist and professor at the University of Salford in the United Kingdom.
The mountains were discovered in a remote forest in northeastern Brazil, stretching across an area the size of Britain. They can be seen from space.
They are all about 10 feet tall, 20 feet wide at the base and spaced at 30- or 40-foot intervals.
Martin first noticed the mounds in 2004 while he was researching the bees' decline in the region. His team published the results of their four-year study in the current scientific journal Current Biology.
"What is strange is that they are regularly spaced, as if there was a great plan," said Martin The current guest speaker Laura Lynch.
Each mound of soil contains a single vertical axis that allows termites to move between the surface and the underground network of tunnels.
When Martin's team began digging through these tunnels, they found several "galleries" filled with dried-up sheet stocks or young termites in the breeding process.
They are, in fact, the oldest living structures … made by insects and still occupied today, around 4,000 years ago.– Stephen Martin, social entomologist
The region's rainy season lasts only about a month of the year, so termites need to gather as much vegetation and other food in that short period.
Martin thinks that termites have managed to build such a network because of the remoteness of the region.
Climate and soil make farming difficult, he said, which keeps humans at bay and allows insects to persist.
"They are, in fact, the oldest living structures … made by insects and, indeed, still occupied today, about 4,000 years ago."
Similar mounds have been found in South Africa and North America, he added, but only in fossilized form.
This network, however, is still inhabited, giving Martin's team a chance to study how these structures are constructed and how termites can create such intricate patterns in large areas.
Here's how researchers explore the mountains:
What can humans learn from termites?
Most people can think of wood-chewing termites simply as architects of destruction.
According to science journalist Lisa Margonell, most termite research was predominantly funded by extermination companies until about 10 years ago.
Today, scientists are intrigued by the mounds of land of termites and how they build them.
When termites construct, "the individual termite receives small signs of the other termites," said Margonelli, author of Underbug: An Obsessive Tale of Termites and Technology.
"This puts a ball of dirt down and when 100 million other dirt balls are dropped, you suddenly have a lot."
Robotics experts are keen on this "collaboration without leadership," she said, and could be a model for programming robots that can build entire buildings without any human supervision.
According to Margonelli, the hills also seem to function as a kind of climate control for the network. Engineers can learn lessons from these hills, which form a kind of passive ventilation system.
"There are many different types of termite mounds, some of them really keep the termites fresh during the day, and a little warmer at night," she explained.
"There's a lot to love about termites, I think," she told Lynch.
Written by Padraig Moran. Produced by Alison Masemann, Danielle Carr and Cameron Perrier.