Sandstone Pillars In New Mexico Identified As Fossil Termite Nests

October 23, 1997

More than 100 sandstone pillars in New Mexico reaching heights of 20 feet above ground appear to be giant, fossilized termite nests roughly 155 million years old, according to new research by a team of Colorado scientists.

"These probably are the world's largest trace fossils," said University of Colorado at Boulder research associate Stephen Hasiotis, who led the study. Trace fossils -- the tracks, trails and burrows left by organisms -- help scientists reconstruct past biodiversity conditions and ancient ecosystems, he said.

The pillars, up to six feet in diameter, had previously been thought by some geologists to be fulgurites, glassy mixtures of sand and rock fused together by lightning strikes. But the new analysis indicates the pillars contain intricate, interconnected galleries and chambers nearly identical to the interior structures of some contemporary social termite nests.

Some of the fossil nests near Gallup, N.M., appear to reach more than 120 feet below the ground in places where researchers were able to trace their pathways down steep hills and cliff sides. Since some types of termites construct their nests around dead and dying tree stump and root systems, he speculated the bottom of the fossil nests likely marked the Jurassic water table.

In 1996, Hasiotis reported the discovery of hundreds of smaller Jurassic termite nests in Colorado and adjoining states, evidence that termites played a major recycling role in the ecosystem at the time. "These pillars are compelling new evidence that termites were well-established and more widespread in the Jurassic than we had thought," he said.

A paper on the subject was presented by Hasiotis Oct. 23 at the Geological Society of America's annual meeting held in Salt Lake City. Other authors include Fred Peterson and Christine Turner of the U.S. Geological Survey in Denver and Timothy Demko of Colorado State University.

In addition to their role as organic recyclers, contemporary termites are believed to pump about 20 million to 40 million tons of methane into the atmosphere annually. "Since methane is a greenhouse gas, all these termites running around during the Jurassic and Cretaceous periods could have had a significant impact on local, regional and global climate," said Hasiotis.

The pillars were built in ancient sand dunes by the insects, which used their saliva, feces and partially digested woody material to bond the sand grains together. The fossilized nests resemble and rival the size of modern giant termite nests found in Africa and Australia today, he said.

Simple and compound "galleries," or tunnels as large as Frisbees radiate out from the central nest chambers, he said. There even is evidence of ancient fungal gardens in the nests that were as large as softballs. Fungal gardens found in termite nests today are known to regulate nest heat and humidity.

The large amount of protein available in the form of Jurassic termites might have made the towers tempting targets for ancient predators, said Hasiotis. He speculated that low-slung, armored dinosaurs like stegosaurs and anklyosaurs may have feasted on the large termite colonies.

The New Mexico fossils are not the oldest termite nests ever found. In 1993, Hasiotis and USGS researcher Russell Dubiel found fossils of 220-million year old termite nests in Arizona's Petrified Forest National Park.

The recent research effort was part of the Morrison Formation Extinct Ecosystem Project, a cooperative effort between the National Park Service, the USGS and a number of universities in the West, including CU-Boulder.

Color photographs of the fossil termite nests can be accessed and downloaded from the EurekAlert news website at: http://www.eurekalert.org/

University of Colorado at Boulder

Related Termites Articles from Brightsurf:

"Helper" ambrosia beetles share reproduction with their mother
A new study shows for the first time that Xyleborus affinis beetles are cooperative breeders, where females disperse to found new nests or stay to help their mother raise siblings, while also reproducing themselves.

Solving global challenges using insect research
IRD researchers and their partners have published a special issue in the Current Opinion in Insect Science journal.

Salute the venerable ensign wasp, killing cockroaches for 25 million years
An Oregon State University study has identified four new species of parasitic, cockroach-killing ensign wasps that became encased in tree resin 25 million years ago and were preserved as the resin fossilized into amber.

Daytime aardvark sightings are a sign of troubled times
New research by the team from Wits, with collaborators from the University of Cape Town and University of Pretoria, reveals what a shift from night-time to daytime activity means for the well-being of aardvarks in a warming and drying world.

Uncovering how endangered pangolins, or 'scaly anteaters,' digest food
The endangered Sunda pangolin, or 'scaly anteater,' is a widely trafficked mammal, prized in some cultures for its meat and scales.

In hunted rainforests, termites lose their dominance
Termite populations in African rainforests decline sharply when elephants and other large animals disappear.

Phylogenetic analysis forces rethink of termite evolution
Despite their important ecological role as decomposers, termites are often overlooked in research.

Hard-working termites crucial to forest, wetland ecosystems
Soil bedding increases microbial and termite decomposition activity

X-rays reveal termites' self-cooling, self-ventilating, self-draining skyscrapers
New insight into termites' architectural strategies could help us design more energy efficient self-sustaining buildings for humans.

Researchers get to the bottom of fairy circles
Fairy circles are round gaps in arid grassland that are distributed very uniformly over the landscape and only occur along the Namib Desert in southern Africa and in parts of Australia.

Read More: Termites News and Termites Current Events
Brightsurf.com is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.