Mound-building termites provide one of the great classic examples of complex social behavior and of collective behaviors emerging from the actions of individuals working together, with their colonies of millions of independent insects tha together construct large-scale, complex mounds. However, termite individual and social behaviors, and how these insect-scale actions give rise to collective colony-scale outcomes, are not well understood. A pair of closely related termite species with similar behavior but strikingly different mound morphologies, and recent advances in tracking individual insects in experimental settings, provides an opportunity to quantify and model how termites interact with their environment and how these behaviors translate to higher-scale system properties. The goal of this application is to develop quantitative experimental methods and data-driven computational models to relate individual behavior to collective outcomes for this social insect. We will conduct experiments to quantify termite behavior in response to environmental drivers, construct and evaluate simulation models that we hypothesize will capture the behavior of the two species using the same model structure but different parameter values, and systematically explore the parameter space to connect to other species and provide broader insights about connecting behaviors at multiple scales. Insights gained from this study regarding principles of self-organization in complex social systems will potentially be applicable to better understanding of collective systems from bacterial colonies to human institutions. This work is a close collaboration among Justin Werfel and Radhika Nagpal, both experts in modeling complex and emergent systems at Harvard, and J. Scott Turner, expert in termite and mound physiology and behavior at SUNY-ESF. All three PIs collaborated (university seed funding) to conduct preliminary studies for the proposed work, including evaluation of prototype experimental techniques onsite in Namibia.
Termites have some of the most complex social organization and building activity in the natural world. We will study how termites work together and interact with their environment in order to better understand how individual actions connect to collective outcomes in social systems. Insights gained will potentially help improve the functioning of human institutions such as health care management.