Arthropod Homes

By Fran Zak
August, 2003

kookaburra on a post

Birds and mammals are not the only animals that build safe homes. Many arthropod species are real masters of building. For example, termites are tiny but they work together to make large, complex homes. Arboreal termites make nests in tropical forests in both Panama and Australia that are similar in appearance. Did you know that an arboreal termite nest also makes a great place for birds to nest? Kookaburras are burrowing birds that often nest by making a small cave in a termite nest. You can read more about this interesting living situation by clicking here . Both the bird and the termites benefit from having the bird nest in the termite mound. The termite nest gets cooled and aerated while the birds get a safe home to lay eggs and bring up young.

Grassy, open Australian savannahs also have many large termite mounds on the ground. I saw termite mounds that were over one and a half meters high, like little apartment complexes. They were often found as close as 5 meters apart for as far as I could see across the savannah. I did not see any of these kinds of termite mounds in Panama, where we stayed in the forest, so I suppose these kinds of termites never live in dense rainforest.

ant hill
Insect architecture is often complex and large. The mound in this photo is an anthill that I saw in grasslands near Brisbane, Australia. A colony of ants lives together here, dividing up the household chores. The workers are all sisters, and they clean the anthill, take care of the queen's young, gather food, get rid of waste, and protect the anthill. The queen is responsible for laying eggs, and is the only female in the colony that reproduces. In Panama, I saw enormous waste mounds created by leaf-cutter ants . I also saw trails of worker leaf-cutter ants carrying food back to their nest or transporting waste away from the clean nest. It was amazing to see how large a piece of leaf or flower a worker ant would carry (much larger than itself) and sometimes perched on top of this huge piece of food would be another ant guarding the precious morsel. Imagine carrying a piece of food that is 50 times your size and then in addition, another animal your size on your back. You would walk the equivalent of many miles from the food source to your nest.


This photo shows animal homes that are intricate in construction but very fragile. These are spider webs . Of course I've seen spider webs before, but never in the grass! The webs were down in the grass in a field we walked across. It's a good thing I took this photo when I did because when we came back the next day, the field had been mowed and all the spider webs were gone.

After discussing different types of animal homes I thought you might enjoy seeing some of the "homes" I stayed in while collecting information for this journal entry. Here is what our room looked like at Chamber's Rainforest Lodge, near Cairns, Australia. We stayed at O'Reilly's Guesthouse (just across the street from Lamington National Park). Here are some of our accommodations when we visited Panama to compare flora and fauna from 2 different continents.

Learn more about farms and rainforest in Australia Journal Account #5.

Written By:
Fran Zak
Pascack Valley HS
Hillsdale, NJ

Edited By:
Jackie Willis, Ph.D.
Montclair State University
Upper Montclair, NJ

Special thanks to Professional Resources in Science and Mathematics (PRISM) at Montclair State University and Dr. Jackie Willis for making these ecology trips possible and for sharing her wealth of knowledge, her expertise, and her photographs with us.