A_Superorganisms_Fuzzy_Boundaries__poste-2 - A...

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A Superorganism's Fuzzy Boundaries The breathing termite mounds of southern Africa raise the question, Where does “animate” end and “inanimate” begin? By J. Scott Turner As you read this article pay attention to the following questions: 1) What is the functional purpose of the structural design of the Macrotermes termite mounds? 2) What organisms are conducting respiration in the mound, and what are the metabolic products and bi-products associated with this respiration. 3) What is the relationship between the Macrotermes termites and the Termitomyces fungus? 4) What does the author suggest prevents other forms of fungus from spreading in the nest and what does this have to do with RANGE OF TOLERANCE (see Miller Text). 5) What does the title of the article mean by ”SuperOrganism”? They look like the curlicue-topped mountain that overlooks the Grinch's Whoville: cones of soil and sand, up to thirty feet tall, topped with earthen spires pointing toward the noon sun. Common on the savannas of southern Africa, they are termite mounds, constructed by the fungus-cultivating termite Macrotermes michaelseni . Locals call these structures "ant heaps." In Afrikaans, termites are rysmeere (literally, rice ants); sometimes the insects are called white ants. Termites are not ants, however: their ancestors are social cockroaches, not the wasps from which ants descend. And neither is the termite mound a heap, a haphazard pile of dirt. Opening it reveals a complicated internal architecture: a capacious central chimney from which radiates a complex network of passages, connecting ultimately to an array of thin-walled tunnels that lie under the mound's surface like veins on an arm. Most interesting, though, is what you do not see: termites. The mound is not a habitation for the millions of termites that built it. Their residence is a nest below the mound, a spherical underground city about six feet in diameter. The mound's internal architecture betokens its purpose. The mound ventilates the nest, a service that the termites desperately need. A few tiny termites may not breathe much, but a couple million of them together consume oxygen at a rate roughly that of a large rabbit. And the termites are not the only heavy breathers in the nest. Macrotermes species each grow a particular species of fungus that predigests the termites' food. The insects swallow grass, bark, dead wood, and undigested matter in Macrotermes termites cultivate a particular species of fungus that predigests their food.
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other animals' fecal pellets and quickly pass them, undigested, within the nest, where the fungus can break down the material. This fungus, together with bacteria and other soil microorganisms, raises the oxygen requirement to the amount needed by a cow. Indeed, ranchers in northern Namibia think of each termite mound as the equivalent of one livestock unit: each nest's foraging insects eat about the same quantity of grass as would one head of cattle. A cow buried alive would soon die without access to air, and so it is
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This note was uploaded on 04/12/2011 for the course ECOLOGY 143 taught by Professor Anibal during the Winter '11 term at Grand Valley State University.

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A_Superorganisms_Fuzzy_Boundaries__poste-2 - A...

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