December 13, 2012 – Giving new meaning to the term “gold bug,” termites may prove to be a much cheaper way to find untapped gold deposits.
Recent experiments in Australia revealed that termites collect and stockpile gold while they are accumulating rock and ore for their nests, National Geographic reported.
Gold deposits, typically found several meters underground, are notoriously tricky for people to spot. But insects such as termites, with an appetite for metal, could make that much, much easier.
Termites burrow into the ground, consuming metals such as zinc and magnesium, which are used to reinforce their jaws and bodies. This process is similar to the way the human digestive system naturally takes calcium from food and uses it to reinforce bones. When a termite is eating, it will also take in other metals, which aren’t utilized by its body. Its natural system will excrete those metals (which can include gold, silver and platinum) through shedding or by passing minuscule stones. However, this biological waste isn’t wasted. Instead termites use it as building material to extend their nests.
By studying termite nests and measuring the trace amounts of gold found within them, scientists were able to accurately confirm if the nests were built on or near a gold deposit. Nests removed from gold deposits had much less gold content.
“That social insect colonies can selectively accumulate metals from their environment has been known for some time," wrote Robert Matthews, a professor emeritus of entomology at the University of Georgia.
"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, said Matthews.
The new breakthrough finding, which confirmed that idea, came from a study led by Aaron Stewart, an entomologist with Australia's Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation.
"Drilling is expensive,” said Stewart. “If termites can help narrow down the area that needs to be drilled, then exploration companies could save a lot of money."
The presence of gold in a termite nest can be measured using a mass spectrometer. These instruments measure the chemical makeup of molecules.