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In Brazilian backlands, these termites are building millions of dirt mounds

What built them

What built them

There are over 200 million mounds built by termites that stretch across 88,800 square miles (230,000 square kilometers), about the size of Great Britain.

Some of the dirt heaps are nearly 4,000 years old.

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Years and years of existence

Years and years of existence

"While the Romans were building their columns, their buildings, these termites were building their mounds," said Roy Funch, an American botanist, adding that the dirt piles represent the largest bioconstruction of any species other than humans.

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How many were there

How many were there

The mounds, seen in various places in a vast desert-like region called the Caatinga, stand between 6 and 13 feet (2 to 4 meters) high and are spaced roughly equally apart - between 52 and 72 feet (16 to 22 meters).

To landowners who clear brush to plant crops, the mounds are a nuisance.

Bulldozing them is difficult because over years of being baked in the hot sun, the already-hard dirt and clay become like stone. Poor people in the area use chunks of the mounds to build adobe houses.

Asking local people didn't help - "Some would say they are termites, some would say ants, some would say: 'Well, they have always been there. They are part of nature,'" Funch said.

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How was the beginning

How was the beginning

After thourough research, it was concluded that mounds were built by Syntermes dirus, a large termite species that feeds on leaves and lives underground.

While the termites are found in the region, the researchers didn't find them actively working in the larger mounds, but instead along the edges of areas with mounds.

Cutting into several mounds, they found only a small tube-like hole going to the top of each one, not an extensive pattern of tunnels throughout. That suggested the termites were simply finding a place to chuck earth from underground, where they build their tunnels.

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Are they ubiquitous?

Are they ubiquitous?

In more humid areas where the same species lives, such as the Amazon, the mounds are eroded by rain and wind.

But the Caatinga eco-region gets rainfall only a few weeks a year. The desert shrub-land vegetation covers and camouflages the mounds in large swaths of the area, one of the reasons they were essentially hiding in plain sight.

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How long had they been there

How long had they been there

The mounds are also very old.

Radioactive testing determined they ranged in age from 690 to 3,820 years.

While many people view termites as pests because some species eat wood, and thus homes, the social insects are also some of the world's best engineers, building vast networks of underground tunnels and huge heaps of dirt.

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