Termite colonies construct towering, complex mounds, in a classic example of distributed agents coordinating their activity via interaction with a shared environment. The traditional explanation for how this coordination occurs focuses on the idea of a ‘cement pheromone’, a chemical signal left with deposited soil that triggers further deposition. Recent research has called this idea into question, pointing to a more complicated behavioural response to cues perceived with multiple senses. In this work, we explored the role of topological cues in affecting early construction activity in Macrotermes. We created artificial surfaces with a known range of curvatures, coated them with nest soil, placed groups of major workers on them and evaluated soil displacement as a function of location at the end of 1 h. Each point on the surface has a given curvature, inclination and absolute height; to disambiguate these factors, we conducted experiments with the surface in different orientations. Soil displacement activity is consistently correlated with surface curvature, and not with inclination nor height. Early exploration activity is also correlated with curvature, to a lesser degree. Topographical cues provide a long-term physical memory of building activity in a manner that ephemeral pheromone labelling cannot. Elucidating the roles of these and other cues for group coordination may help provide organizing principles for swarm robotics and other artificial systems.
This article is part of the theme issue ‘Liquid brains, solid brains: How distributed cognitive architectures process information’.