Many termite species use clay to build foraging galleries and mound-nests. In some cases clay is placed within excavations of their wooden food, such as living trees or timber in buildings; however the purpose for this clay is unclear. We tested the hypotheses that termites can identify load bearing wood, and that they use clay to provide mechanical support of the load and thus allow them to eat the wood. In field and laboratory experiments, we show that the lower termite Coptotermes acinaciformis, the most basal species to build a mound-nest, can distinguish unloaded from loaded wood, and use clay differently when eating each type. The termites target unloaded wood preferentially, and use thin clay sheeting to camouflage themselves while eating the unloaded wood. The termites attack loaded wood secondarily, and build thick, load-bearing clay walls when they do. The termites add clay and build thicker walls as the load-bearing wood is consumed. The use of clay to support wood under load unlocks otherwise unavailable food resources. This behaviour may represent an evolutionary step from foraging behaviour to nest building in lower termites.
Oberst, S., Lai, J. C. S., & Evans, T. (2016). Termites utilise clay to build structural supports and so increase foraging resources. Scientific Reports, 6, 1-11. . https://doi.org/10.1038/srep20990