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THE ULTIMATE TERMITE ROAD TRIP – PART 1

Termite expert Scott Kleinschmidt details his termite tour from Brisbane to Darwin here in Part 1 of The Ultimate Termite Road Trip. Part 2 sees him continuing on towards Darwin and the second leg of his journey to Townsville.

Everyone loves a good road trip – the wide-open highway, wind blowing through the hair (think Thelma & Louise, minus the going over the cliff bit). It was with great excitement that I packed the trailer with a huge amount of equipment and hit the road in early April. The plan was to drive from Brisbane to Darwin and then back via Townsville – I had a number of termite trials to inspect and new ones to install.

Now I am no stranger to long distance driving, as I have clocked up 100,000km in the two years since leaving the corporate world, with most of this driving done with no one else in the vehicle (lucky I like my own company). The radio is a good companion, but there are many black spots – hours when no signal (of any kind) is being received.

My way of keeping amused is to stop and inspect as many different types of termite activity that I can find. The most obvious signs of termite activity, especially when travelling at 100 km/h, are the mounds. There are so many different shapes, sizes and colours of mounds, especially once you get into the more remote areas of our wonderful country.

Termite mounds – a common site across the Northern Territory

Nearly all of the termite species that attack timber in service – the economically important species and therefore the species pest managers deal with, are cryptic in their nesting habits – their nests are often hidden. Coptotermes usually nest inside trees, Mastotermes in the root ball
of trees (below ground) and Schedorhinotermes either below ground or hidden under a woodpile. Nasutitermes species are probably the only one that builds an obvious nest – N. exitiosus (large on-ground mound) and N. walkeri (above ground nest on trees). However, the grass-feeding termites build beautiful monuments, as if to show off their engineering prowess.

The mounds on the first part of the journey from Brisbane to Toowoomba and up through the Darling Downs consisted of patches of Nasutitermes magnus (medium-sized mounds) and Microcerotermes and Nasutitermes arboreal nests. An interesting fact about the Microcerotermes nests are that they are almost exclusively positioned on the northern side of the tree – I was told in my old Forestry days that you could use them for navigation purposes when lost (well before GPS). These nests are also favourite nesting sites for the azure kingfisher.

Azure Kingfishers like to nest in arboreal termite nests

The ground-based mound action basically disappeared during the 1,000km from Augathella to Cloncurry, including the towns of Blackall, Barcaldine, Longreach and Winton. Now this really interested me – why would there be no termite mounds in this stretch and why did they magically re-appear again at Cloncurry? Immediate possibilities that sprung to mind could be due to differences in height above sea level, soil type, rainfall and vegetation.

I decided to write down when the mounds appeared and disappeared for the rest of the journey and also took notes on any changes associated with the boundary of mounds versus non-mounds.

The mounds continued to be present through Mt Isa and almost to the border of the Northern Territory when they disappeared again. They reappeared along the Barkly Tableland (200km west of the Queensland border).

As well as the pattern of mounds appearing and disappearing, an intriguing aspect was the way some mound types suddenly appeared amongst all the other mounds and either be plentiful for hundreds of kilometres or briefly appear and never be seen again.

One particular mound type (of unknown species) that appeared along the Barkly Tableland were large rotund mounds standing about two metres high with a unique ‘ponytail’ on top. They were bunched tightly in groups of about a dozen or so over the space of 5km and then disappeared and were never seen again.

A rare cluster of the strange ‘ponytail’ mounds in the Barkly Tablelands

There were of course the stock standard pinnacle shaped mounds of Amitermes and Nasutitermes, that stretched from 200km inside the NT/QLD border, all the way to Darwin.

A particularly common Nasutitermes species builds a mound with a round top. An interesting pastime of some travellers is to dress up such mounds on the side of the highway with shirts, coats and hats. The first hundred or so are amusing, but after a couple of thousand the novelty wears off.

Backpackers ‘woz ere’

Closer to Darwin, the types of mounds get more diverse with the iconic cathedral (Nasutitermes triodiae) and magnetic (Amitermes meridionalis) mounds starting to appear as well as the mound-building form of Coptotermes acinaciformis.

With regard to my observations on when the mounds appeared and disappeared on my journey, there were no obvious differences in vegetation or soil colour at the boundaries and the only noticeable difference was in the condition of the road. As soon as the mounds disappeared, the road became much rougher especially at creek crossings. When the mounds reappeared, the road was in much better condition.

This did not make sense at the time but following good scientific technique, this was recorded in my notes. This ended up making perfect sense when I discovered the answer to the riddle, but you will have to read Part 2 of the story to find out more.

Scott KleinschmidtDirector, Australian Timber and Pest Research

Scott Kleinschmidt has been involved in termite research activities for over 30 years and after successful roles in the Qld DPI, Aventis, Bayer and BASF, he now runs his own consultancy business that provides research and development services to the pest management and timber preservation industries.