Driving around Mjejane Game Reserve and Kruger one normally drives past these prominent sandy or clay mounds that tower out of the ground without giving it much thought, but within these mounds there are interesting things happening. Most of these termite mounds contain thousands of tiny termites that are called Fungus-growing Termites, both the Large Fungus-growing and the Common Fungus-growing termites occur in this area.
They are marvellous little creatures, that function in such a way that it is almost unthinkable. The mound is built by using a mixture of saliva and sand that works as a cement, it might seem as if the mound is a solid rock on the outside, but inside there are hundreds of tiny ventilation pipes and tunnels that link to one another. Within the mound is a complex colony hard at work, the colony consists of the workers, the soldiers and the queen. Each of these individuals play a vital role and the one can not exist without the other.
The fungus-growing termites in particular do not possess micro-bacteria in their gut to break down celluloses found in the cell walls of all plant material. The worker termites collect food, mainly grass, from outside and partially digest it. Once inside the mound, the partially digested food is excreted onto fungus gardens. The fungus breaks the material down and is then digested by the whole colony. The fungus balls are fed directly to the queen and the nymphs. In order for these fungus gardens to survive the termites must keep the mound temperature up to 32⁰C, the mound has a central chimney that is situated in the middle, with side vents going out. Hot air escapes from the central chimney and cool surface air enters through the side vents.
The numerous worker termites are responsible for maintenance on the mound, tending the fungus gardens, feeding the soldiers and looking after the queen and her offspring. Soldiers are the defence force of the mound, they have large mandibles and can squirt an irritant to ward off attackers. The queen is an egg-laying factory that can lay up to 30 000 eggs within one day, unlike the other termites she resembles a large wormlike creature. The queen can live up to 50 years, where after she is buried by the workers, a nymph will then be fed a certain chemical that will stimulate it to become the new queen. Throughout the queen’s life time she will produce reproductive alates (flying termites) that will leave the mound and establish their own. This normally happens once a year after the first summer rains, where males and females from different colonies find each other and locate a new mound.
These alates or flying termites serve as a major food source for birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians and even humans in some cultures. Termites are high in nutrients and there are few animals on Mjejane and Kruger that enjoy the delicious critters, these include the elusive pangolin and aardvark. Both of these species have been spotted on Mjejane before and one can see their impact on some of the mounds as they have opened it up to feed on the termites. Other animals utilise these mounds once they have been opened, animals such as warthogs, wilddogs and hyenas use the mound as a den and other animals such snakes and lizards lay their eggs inside. work that happens within.
Although they are one off the smallest animals in nature, they play an enormous role in an ecosystem as they are a major food source and provide homes to many others. And if you can stomach it, try an alate to find out why so many animals enjoy eating them.