Picky-eater termites choose good vibes

Termites are fussy eaters. Some go for twigs and branches. Others favor logs and trunks. Vibrations in the wood may help all these termites choose what to eat, according to Theodore Evans of CSIRO, Australia’s national research agency, in Canberra.

WOOD WORKERS. When deciding what to eat, these termites might use vibrations. D. McClenaghan/CSIRO Entomology

Evans had noted that termites are also noisy eaters, and he thought that the blind, slow insects might be exploiting their racket to gather intelligence about food sources.

To test his hunch, he and his colleagues offered big and small pine blocks to a common tropical dry-wood species of termite, Cryptotermes domesticus. The scientists found that the species preferred the smaller, domino-size blocks.

With help from a specialist in aircraft noise from Australia’s Defense Force Academy, Evans and his colleagues recorded chewing-caused vibrations in the wood pieces. When the researchers ran the block-choice test with an experimental twist—sending big-block vibrations through a smaller block—the termites lost their preference for little pieces of wood, the team reports in the March 8 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Acoustic signals unrelated to chewing had no effect.

Gregg Henderson of Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge speculates that the finding could explain the penchant for termites in his locale to chew through polyvinyl chloride (PVC) pipes that house telephone cables. Air rushing through those pipes makes them quiver, he says. “I have long thought that sound or vibration may encourage the termites to chew through the nonedible PVC,” Henderson says.

The new findings could open the way to vibration-based tactics for turning away termites, Evans suggests.

Susan Milius is the life sciences writer, covering organismal biology and evolution, and has a special passion for plants, fungi and invertebrates. She studied biology and English literature.

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