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Termites’ golden moments

By Pat, 4 January 2013 News

Termite mound in the bush.

Termite mounds might be able to help identify mineral deposits.
Image: A Stewart, CSIRO



How would you find out where to strike gold? Turns out termites might have the answer.

Knowing where mineral deposits are located is important to the mining industry. Finding out what is in the ground beneath our feet can be harder than it looks. Depending on what a geologist is looking for, there are a few different techniques. Iron ore deposits can be detected by changes in the local magnetic field, while a radiation detector can be used to find uranium ore. Another method is to collect soil samples and do a chemical analysis.

The problem with this last method is that soil, rocks and minerals on the surface may be very different from those a few metres underground. In Australia, many easily noticed mineral deposits have been dug up. The minerals deeper down are of interest now, but finding them is harder. If chemical analysis of minerals below the surface is needed, drilling or digging is carried out to collect samples, and these tests can quickly become expensive.

This is where termites come into it. Some species of termites build large mounds as their homes. In order to build and maintain these structures, termites burrow underground. When they return to the mound, they carry small particles of minerals and soil with them, which become incorporated into the mound.

The termites sometimes dig into deeper layers that are different from the surface. These deeper layers might contain valuable mineral deposits. Over time, the concentration of valuable minerals in the termite mound can become higher than in surrounding soil. This indicates the termite mound is sitting on a mineral deposit.

Scientists have already used termite mounds to find minerals in Africa, where mounds tend to be bigger. Scientists from CSIRO have now shown that smaller mounds found in Western Australia could be used to find gold deposits.

Using termite mounds could make it easier to find mineral deposits and discover them more cheaply. After all, why dig when bugs can do it for you?

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