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Termite (Tumulitermes tumuli) taken under a microscope. (Credit: Aaron Stewart)

Scientists use termites to find gold

  • BY Alyce Taylor |
  • December 21, 2012

Researchers are using termites to find precious metals beneath Australia's landscape.

CSIRO RESEARCHERS ARE USING termites to track gold and other precious mineral deposits.

“A lot of Australia’s landscape is covered by a layer of material that is capping and hiding resources, so we are using termites to help see beneath that. Because they construct their nests, in part, with material which is a little bit deeper down,” says Dr Aaron Stewart, a CSIRO researcher.

Aaron is the lead author of the paper, which was published last month in the journal Geochemistry: Exploration, Environment, Analysis. The paper suggests the future of resource exploration could lie in tracking insects.

Termite mounds contain signs of gold

Termites and ants burrow into the depth of the ground where ‘fingerprints’ of underlying gold deposits are found. The insects bring traces of these fingerprints up to the surface when making their nests.

Large termite mounds in Northern Australia and Africa have previously been used in mineral exploration. But by studying termite sites in Western Australia the CSIRO research team has shown that smaller nests, which are common throughout Australia, are just as valuable in identifying gold deposits.

“Our recent research has shown that small ant and termite mounds that may not look like much on the surface are just as valuable in finding gold as the large African mounds that stand at several meters tall,” says Aaron.

Termites could be used to mine other precious metals

In the future insects could be used commercially by mining companies to determine the location of gold and other mineral deposits, according to scientists. The technique could present an environmentally-friendly alternative to invasive drilling methods.

“By developing these methods it will make life much easier for exploration companies working in areas with a lot of transported sediment cover,” says Dr Ravi Anand, who co-authored the paper. “It will also cut down the cost of exploration.”

“We haven’t demonstrated that we can use termites to find other mineral resources yet,” says Aaron. “But in principle, there is no reason why we can’t.”

Mineral resources make up $86.7 billion of Australia’s exports and new discoveries in many commodities are needed to sustain production, which pushes pioneering exploration research.

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