Gold “Mining” Termites Found, May Lead Humans to Riches
Insects stockpile precious metal while gathering nest material, study says.
BY CHRISTINE DELL’AMORE, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC NEWS
PUBLISHED DECEMBER 14, 2012
Want to know if you’re literally sitting on a gold mine? Get some termites, a new study suggests.
New experiments in West Australia reveal that termites “mine” and stockpile the precious metal while they’re collecting subterranean material for their nests.
For the study, entomologist Aaron Stewart, with Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, and colleagues took samples from several termite nests and compared the nest material to nearby soil samples from varying depths.
By using a mass spectrometer—an instrument that measures molecules’ chemical makeup—they discovered that the termite nests were richer in gold than termite nests farther away from the metal, Stewart said in an email. (Also see “Battling Termites? Just Add Sugar.”)
“That social insect colonies can selectively accumulate metals from their environment has been known for some time,” Robert Matthews, a professor emeritus of entomology at the University of Georgia, noted by email.
“Some have even suggested that ant and termite nests could be analyzed productively when searching for potential mining sites for precious metals” such as gold, he said.
Those are Stewart’s thoughts exactly. Gold deposits are usually hidden a few meters below the surface, making them tough for people to locate. But insectscould essentially act as indicators of this buried treasure, said Stewart, whose study appeared recently in the journal Geochemistry: Exploration, Environment, Analysis.
“Drilling is expensive. If termites can help narrow down the area that needs to be drilled, then exploration companies could save a lot of money.”