Fungus-growing higher termites build long subterranean galleries that lead outwards from the nest to foraging sites. When soldiers are disturbed, they tend to drum with their heads against the substrate and thereby create vibrational alarm signals. The present study aimed at describing these acoustic signals, how they are elicited, produced and perceived, and how these signals propagate within the galleries and nests over long distances in two termite species of the Southern African savannah, Macrotermes natalensis and an Odontotermes sp. The signals consist of trains of pulses with a pulse repetition rate of 10–20 Hz. The galleries have physical features that promote vibrational communication and are used as channels for long-distance communication. In M. natalensis, the signal propagation velocity is ~130 m s−1 and the signals are attenuated by ~0.4 dB per centimetre distance. Nestmates are extremely sensitive to these vibrations with a behavioural threshold amplitude of 0.012 m s−2. Workers respond by a fast retreat into the nest and soldiers are recruited to the source of vibration. Soldiers also start to drum with a reaction time of about 0.3 s, thereby amplifying the intensity of the signal. This social long-distance communication through chains of signal-reamplifying termites results in a relatively slow propagation (1.3 m s−1) of the signal without decrement over distances of several metres.
This study is part of the PhD thesis of F.A.H. supervised by W.H.K.
No competing interests declared.
This study was supported by grants of the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD).
- © 2013. Published by The Company of Biologists Ltd