They might be close in terms of appearance but ants and termites are far from friends. These little critters share a hostility that can be traced back millions of years, one that often manifests in their respective armies fighting to the death. In spite of this, blind termites have been known to go about their activities within just millimeters of ant nests. So how do they keep the peace? Australian scientists believe they have found the answer – the termites' ability to hear micro-vibrations produced by the footprints of predatory ants, a trait that helps them avoid confrontation and might offer valuable lessons for counter-espionage and pest control.

It had been thought that termites get a sense of ants' whereabouts either through reading their chemical or acoustic signals, but until now scientists couldn't be sure which one. Researchers at Sydney's University of New South Wales (UNSW) made their discovery after designing a highly sensitive vibration setup inside an anechoic chamber – that is, a space free from echo.

"Our task was to measure minuscule vibrations caused by the footsteps of insects with a weight of only a few milligrams," explains UNSW's Sebastian Oberst. "I had to enter an anechoic room which absorbed all sound reflections and that was decoupled from the building, but still we picked up vibrations from people in the building. We had to decouple the equipment within the room. The vibration of some termite species are so tiny that you wouldn't feel them walking on your skin."

This environment provided the researchers with a number of interesting insights on insect behavior. They studied 16 termite species and found them to be up to 100 times quieter than certain types of ants, with the respective footsteps likened to tip-toeing versus stomping. There was an exception, with one specific ant species that hunts solo almost as quiet as the termites.

But what really piqued the team's interest were observations that the termite species Coptotermes acinaciformis was able to detect its major predator, the ant Iridomyrmex purpureus through thin wood using only vibrational cues, (without help from chemical signals).

Where this information might come in handy for us is by helping advance technologies that rely on acoustic signatures. This would require further studies on how exactly termites extract the specific vibrations from the ant footsteps from background noise, but the researchers say discoveries in that area could one day help researchers working in defense and counter-espionage.

Furthermore, if this knowledge can be leveraged for the purposes of pest control, it could be a game-changer. Imagine if instead of spraying toxic chemicals around your house the acoustic signals of ants and termites could be used instead. The researchers note that there is still much study to do before that becomes a reality, but their latest work does raise that possibility.

The research was published in the journal Ecology Letters.

Source: University of New South Wales