Swarm Cognition: Termites

Eusociality has evolved independently at least twice among the insects: among the Hymenoptera (ants and bees), and earlier among the Isoptera (termites). Studies of swarm intelligence, and by inference, swarm cognition, have focused largely on the bees and ants, while the termites have been relatively neglected. Yet, termites are among the world’s premier animal architects, and this betokens a sophisticated swarm intelligence capability. In this article, I review new findings on the workings of the mound of Macrotermes which clarify how these remarkable structures work, and how they come to be built. Swarm cognition in these termites is in the form of “extended” cognition, whereby the swarm’s cognitive abilities arise both from interaction amongst the individual agents within a swarm, and from the interaction of the swarm with the environment, mediated by the mound’s dynamic architecture. The latter provides large scale “cognitive maps” which enable termite swarms to assess the functional state of their structure and to guide repair efforts where necessary. The crucial role of the built environment in termite swarm cognition also points to certain “swarm cognitive disorders”, where swarms can be pushed into anomalous activities by manipulating crucial structural and functional attributes of the termite system of “extended cognition.”

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Read also: Scientist at work: observing termite behaviors, personalities – and souls?

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About Giorgio Bertini

Director at Learning Change Project - Research on society, culture, art, neuroscience, cognition, critical thinking, intelligence, creativity, autopoiesis, self-organization, rhizomes, complexity, systems, networks, leadership, sustainability, thinkers, futures ++
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