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Termites Strike Gold in Australia

80beatsBy Breanna DraxlerDecember 19, 2012 12:52 AM


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These massive termite mounds in Kakadu National Park in northern Australia are built by the Nasutitermes triodae species of termite, but researchers found that even the smaller mounds of the Tumulitermes tumuli termites have high concentrations of gold. Scientists in West Australia struck gold when they found high concentrations of the precious metal in termite hills. These gold-laden sediments are a good indication of deposits underground. Enlisting the earth-moving skills of the termite takes some of the guesswork out of modern gold prospecting. Gold has been mined in this area of Australia for a century and a half, but as eroded sediments collect on the surface, the gold deposits get buried and become harder to find. When termites deliver the soil samples, researchers don't have to drill in hopes of finding them, which makes the scouting process cheaper and less invasive. The practice of termite-based gold exploration [pdf] has long been employed in parts of northern Africa, but this study was the first in which researchers looked at the mounds of the Tumulitermes tumuli termite in western Australia. Researchers found that this particular species of termite can transport sediments from depths of three to 13 feet. The concentration of gold in the test samples was as high as 5,000 parts per billion. In a parallel study, led by the same researcher, the team found that the termites were actually ingesting and excreting gold. The termite eliminates the metal from its system much like a human would pass a kidney stone. Thus termites may be the key to directing future mining efforts in the sprawling gold fields of western Australia--or they may in fact be part of the process. Termite farm, anyone?

Image courtesy of Piotr Gatlik/Shutterstock

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