Moisture gradients form a vapor cycle within the viscous boundary layer as an organizing principle to worker termites

R. Soar*, G. Amador, P. Bardunias, J. S. Turner

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleScientificpeer-review

3 Citations (Scopus)
77 Downloads (Pure)


Studies of termite mound building have considered the mud they prepare, its properties and its composition. Here we consider the behaviors of the mound building termites Macrotermes michaelseni, (Sjostedt), in the presence of the viscous boundary layer (VBL), which spontaneously forms over any surface that air passes over. We looked how soil moisture and air vapor are coupled to form a feedback loop and a spatiotemporal precursor to worker termites in the presence of mound material. We explored residency and activities of workers when presented with a VBL and either varying substrate temperature gradients or a soil moisture transition within the soil substrate. We report the emergence of a ‘vapor conveyor’, which forms around a neutral evaporative equilibrium point (NEEP) at the soil/air interface, where the soil-borne moisture temperature (along the gradient) and the 100% saturated air-borne vapor temperature coincide within the VBL, forming a bubble of neutral mass transfer which, we propose, worker termites are sensitive to as viscosity changes within. We found, on average, that 67% (std. dev 27%) of behavioral events (clustering, excavation, and deposition) occurred within 1 °C either side of the NEEP. We found negative correlation (− 0.78) between the substrate temperature gradient (0.1–0.9 °C mm −1 ) and the extents of behavioral activity, suggesting coupling between soil-borne moisture and air-borne vapor advection within the VBL. We recorded unique behaviors relating to interaction with the viscosity of vapor-saturated air at this scale. We speculate that workers may exploit the VBL to overcome a classic trade-off, i.e., how to push activities forward into potentially desiccating environments while conserving moisture in both the termites and the soil they build with.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)193-209
JournalInsectes Sociaux
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 2019


  • Construction
  • Moisture gradient
  • Spatiotemporal precursor
  • Template
  • Viscous boundary layer
  • Worker termite behavior


Dive into the research topics of 'Moisture gradients form a vapor cycle within the viscous boundary layer as an organizing principle to worker termites'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this