By NATALIE ANGIER
The giant termite mounds that rise up from the sands of the African savanna are so distinctive it’s tempting to give them names, like “Art Deco Skyline” or “Trumpeting Elephant” or “Flagrantly Obvious Fertility Totem.”
Whatever the metaphor, the charismatic megaforms dominate their landscape, and not just visually. As scientists are just beginning to appreciate, termites and the often elaborate habitats they construct are crucial to the health and robustness of a broad array of ecosystems: deserts and semideserts; tropical and subtropical rain forests; warm, temperate woodlands; possibly your local park.
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The termites in turn offer their fungal partners plenty of water, nourishment and a clean, safe, temperate and well-ventilated haven free of competing fungal strains. The mounds also protect their builders — against the sun that would desiccate them, the seasonal rain that would drown them, and the many predators that would happily devour them.
The largest African mounds can measure 30 feet high and 80 feet across, and house millions to tens of millions of termites. The mounds are refugia for plants, fungi and large herbivores, too. In Mozambique’s Gorongosa National Park, antelope like bushbuck and kudu often congregate around termite mounds, and not just for the grazing opportunities.
“The mounds are cooler in the heat of day and warmer at night,” said Robert Pringle, an ecologist at Princeton and an author of the report in Science. “They’re a very pleasant place to hang out.”
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