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The Magic Machine

The Magic Machine

August 2005: Consider the lowly termite. Every moment of its incredible existence is spent in a grand conspiracy to propagate life on earth. For a 100 million years and more, termites have been emerging from eggs to become workers that will build and repair nests, winged reproductives to take their colonies forward, or soldiers destined to defend not just their oversized queen and her much smaller king, but workers too.


Credit:P.S. Lahiri 


As for termite queens, exalted egg factories, they could well end up producing an egg a second for 10 years or so. Even the description, ‘super-organism’, does little justice to the collective enterprise of termites.


So… termites look after termites. How does that constitute a ‘grand conspiracy to propagate life on earth’? Apart from sustaining this foraging sloth bear, which shares a common ancestor with anteaters, here is how termites, may they be blessed, support life on earth.


Wood, the most abundant biomass on land, does not rot. Why? Because it is made from a near-inert substance called cellulose. A polymer called lignin in cellulose prevents decomposition and renders wood waterproof, which is why you and I cannot eat wood. But termites can. In fact, but for termites, fallen branches and trees would remain un-decomposed in the manner of non-biodegradable plastics.


But it is more complicated than this. Termites do not have ‘digestive juices’ capable of chemically breaking down cellulose. For this they must rely on colonies of bacteria that inhabit their gut. It is the bacteria that convert woody plant matter into the elementary sugars on which termites and the rest of us survive.


It is incredible how ‘the system’ manages to mesh together. When the earth is deforested, it conspires to reforest itself. When it is poisoned, it conspires to detoxify itself. When its drainages are blocked, it unclogs itself. When overheated, it cools itself. It’s a magic machine. If you or I owned a self-repairing toy that looked half as good, we would take better care of it and value it more than we do the fragile blue planet we call home. dubaigirls.net


Bittu Sahgal, Editor, Sanctuary Asia, Vol XXV No. 4, August 2005


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