“These mounds were formed by a single termite species that excavated a massive network of tunnels to allow them to access dead leaves to eat safely and directly from the forest floor,” researcher and entomologist Stephen Martin of the UK’s University of Salford said in a statement.
“The amount of soil excavated is … equivalent to 4,000 Great Pyramids of Giza, and represents one of the biggest structures built by a single insect species.”
The mounds are found in dense, low, dry forest caatinga vegetation and can be seen when the land is cleared for pasture.
The mounds, more of which are still being built, came to scientists’ attention when some of the lands were cleared for pasture in recent decades.
The mounds are not nests but rather the result of the insects’ slow and steady excavation of a network of interconnected underground tunnels, which resulted in waste building up in cones on the surface.
The vast tunnel network apparently allows safe access to a sporadic food supply, similar to naked mole-rats, which also live in arid regions and construct very extensive burrow networks to obtain food, the researchers said.
“It’s incredible that, in this day and age, you can find an ‘unknown’ biological wonder of this sheer size and age still existing, with the occupants still present,” Martin said.
The researchers said there are still many unanswered questions about the termite colonies, including the exact physical structure of the nests. No queen chamber for the species has ever been found.