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Google Earth used to identify environmentally important termite mounds

In woodland and savannah areas, certain termite species play a critical environmental role due to the mounds they build. These mounds can be used as fertilizer to induce new ecosystems, and the termites themselves can be studied as biological indicators of human-caused degradation. Detecting the amount and distribution of these mounds throughout an area can provide importance insight on the overall health of an environment. However, detecting the mounds on the ground can be a costly and time-consuming activity.

Scientists may have come up with a solution. Recent research published in’s open-access journal Tropical Conservation Science , uses free Google Earth aerial images to detect these mounds with promising results.

Carried out in the mining city of Lubumbashi in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the author’s hoped to gain a sense of smaller areas where more research could be conducted on the ground. Lubumbashi consists of a fast growing population, where mining, deforestation, as well as overpopulation, are destroying local ecosystems and impacting termite mounds. By using aerial images of termite mounds in the outskirts of Lubumbashi, the author’s hoped to study the species’ activity as well as the effects this city had on the insects’ behavior and presence.

Palm tree and termite mound: typical scenery on the delta. Photo by Tiffany Roufs.Palm tree and termite mound: typical scenery on the delta. Photo by Tiffany Roufs.

There is currently little research on tropical termites as a species or their place in the ecosystem. But, as the author’s state, “soil foraging termite mounds like those of Macrotermes falciger play an important part in ecosystem functioning” through physically changing the environment, enhancing biodiversity, and increasing landscape diversity as well.

Seeming like the perfect opportunity to gain insight into this occult field, the author’s examined pictures from Google Earth as well as sent people on the ground to test for accuracy. A total of 427 termite mounds were identified in 17 sites surrounding Lubumbashi, but on the ground it was concluded that 33 mounds were not observed by Google Earth images (false negatives), while 64 mounds were observed that did not exist (false positives). Overall a 7.3 percent error rate exists between the aerial footage and what researchers found in the field.

The conclusion was that even though there is a need for partial on-site verification, using aerial photography freely provided by Google Earth researchers could gain a new understanding into termite activity. The aerial method was satisfying enough to detect a certain number of termite mounds as well as their position and activity. Furthermore, using Google Earth proved extremely cost efficient.

As the author’s conclude, “although the results of this paper should be checked in other areas, they can greatly further the study of termite activity and mounds in the context of widespread tropical ecosystem degradation processes, and policies to reverse such degradation.”


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