WASHINGTON – Humans have used drumming to relay messages across large distances for millennia — but they aren’t alone in this. It seems that some species of termite do the same, by bashing their heads on the ground to signal danger.
The African termite Macrotermes natalensis builds giant mounds in the savanna on top of vast networks of tunnels that radiate to their foraging sites. Soldier termites protect the mounds and produce a drumming noise to warn of an approaching predator.
To find out how they do this, German researchers pointed high-speed cameras at the central chamber of a termite mound, then opened it. The soldier termites responded by bashing their heads into the ground around 11 times per second, causing it to vibrate.
Next, they measured how far the vibrations from one termite traveled and found that beyond 38 cm, the ground no longer moved enough for other termites to pick up the signal. Yet termites that were much farther away responded to the signal. It turns out that when soldier termites pick up a drumming alarm, they begin drumming their own heads.