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Termite Headbangers

Termites have been known to produce thumping or rattling sounds in their subterranean homes.

Termite soldier in grass

Photo: cramsay23 (flickr)

Termite soldiers like this one in Portland bang their heads on walls to communicate with other termites

Your noisy neighbors next door might throw late-night parties with loud thumping music. But as it turns out, we humans aren’t the only ones who like loud beats. Termites have been known to produce thumping or rattling sounds in their subterranean home. Scientists at the University of Mississippi filmed several species of termites with super high-speed video cameras to see how the sounds were produced.

As it turns out, they bang their own heads. Only the soldiers in the colony do it. When they want to send a signal or sound an alarm, they will slam their large, hard heads on the tunnel walls. Termites don’t have ears, so the other termites in the colony detect the vibrations through their legs, which have special sensory organs.

Researchers think that these signals are like a call to arms, and other soldiers and workers come in response to the head-banging. The research team also discovered that different species of termites head-bang at different rates. They hope that this discovery will be useful in trying to locate and eradicate invasive species of termites, for example, Formosan subterranean termites, which are destroying many buildings and trees in the Southern U.S.

They used special microphones to listen to the termite vibrations of nearly two-thousand trees in New Orleans. The head-banging of the invasive Formosan termites is faster and more continuous than the banging made by a less-destructive native species of termite. By listening to the vibrations, the scientists were able to correctly identify trees infested with Formosan termites 97% of the time. In contrast, visual inspections only found 50% of the infested trees.

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