The Mound

Who owns the Mound? The answer is not so clear.

The Mound

Who owns the Mound? The answer is not so clear.

The Mound rises up like a tiny mountain on the grass. Tiny compared to mountains, that is: on the scale of those who live in it, the Mound can be truly gigantic.

Who lives in the Mound, and by whom is it owned? That’s not an easy question to answer. We’ll have to wait, and watch, and see, and then perhaps we will finally figure it out.

It grows slowly upward, month by month, taking years to reach its full height of five metres. Baked hard by the sun, it can withstand strong wind, and even rain. However, the Mound is not invincible.

Already, you can see dark clouds gathering on the horizon. The breeze blows more swiftly, carrying the scent of rain on the air. Now the drops come rushing in with the clouds. There is no prelude or introductory shower: from the start they fall hard and fast. They fill the air in front of you, till you can see and feel nothing else.

When the downpour is over, you see the Mound has taken a beating. A full third of it is washed away; you can see the cavities and channels that make up its insides. And that’s when the Mound reveals its main power.

It remakes itself.

The White Worker scurries along the passageway. It is dark and cool and round in here, fresh air flowing in through damp clay walls.

She meets another Worker on the way, coming in the opposite direction filled with water. Their mouths meet for an instant. Water flows from the others’ body to hers, and she goes on her way to pass to the next person. In this way, water is spread through the underground channels, keeping them cool and moist.

This is not the only job our White Worker has. She may be called on to collect food, chomping through it with her powerful jaws and taking it home in her stomach for digestion. Or she might have to help in construction, adjusting the giant air exchange chamber that rises like a mound from the soil.

Workers like her are “novelty detectors”, always on the alert for subtle changes in the environment. If there’s a collapse or cave-in somewhere, they’ll immediately rush to the spot.

Actually, “called upon is the wrong phrase to use here. There is nobody who does the calling, not even the Worker herself. She just knows what to do and does it — as you would know to run if a forest fire was making its rapid advance towards you.

The difference is, she doesn’t work alone. She works in concert with everyone else. They communicate with each other, exchanging signals and following ancient algorithms to coordinate and synchronise and work together as a team.

The Colony lives and and expands. It sends out feelers to scout out new sources of food, and warnings of nearby enemies, and alerts on the changing environment outside.

There is no central command-centre that receives all the information: each part knows only what it has to, and the parts work together to get the job done.

The Colony is an unusual creature. It is not joint together into one physical whole, but composed of many separate pieces — white workers that move around independently, but are always in constant communication. At first glance, the Colony looks like many disjoint creatures, rather than a single entity.

But then, so do many human-made entities like Google and Harvard.

Harvard University, though we think of it as a specific single “thing”, is actually made up of many buildings, humans, legal documents, and other disjoint parts. One of these parts is Radhika Nagpal, professor of robotics, who has a nice analogy about the Colony — and plans to build robots based on the same plan.

Each part, she says — each white worker — is very simple. It reacts rather than thinks, responding to what little it feels and what its neighbours tell it, rather like a single neuron in the human brain.

But on the group level, when you look at all the workers together, there is a kind of collective awareness. The Colony knows, even though its parts do not, the same way a single neuron is never aware of all that’s going on in your head.

The Colony by this analogy, is nothing but a sort of giant, crawling brain.

In a roundish thick-walled chamber, surrounded by tunnels and passageways on all sides, there lives the Queen.

If you could see her, you’d recognise her instantly. The back part of her body is swollen up, elongated to a gigantic 25 millimetres, and making her ordinary-sized head and legs look tiny in comparison.

The reason for this swelling is because the Queen is filled with eggs. Eggs that she lays constantly, 24×7, at a rate of about one egg every three seconds. White Workers mill around here: cleaning her body, giving her food, and generally attending to her needs.

That may sound nice, until you realise her whole life is going to be spent this way. Staying stuck in the same spot, the same room; being nothing but an egg-laying machine.

You may expect a Queen to be in charge of everyone — but, in this case, it’s everyone else who’s in charge of her.

White Workers are very good at eating things, but not at digesting them. That’s why they have digestors, creatures to whom they give the food to do a sort of pre-digestion before eating it again.

Depending on the species, these digestors could be bacteria tended and cultivated by the White Workers, or fungi farmed in the same way, or, more commonly, a combination of bacteria and fungi living inside the guts of the workers themselves.

In this case, the chosen digestor is a fungus that is dependent on the White Workers for protection, but is also very dominant. In fact, if you look at the metabolism — the biological activities of repairing cells and growing tissues and generally keeping the body running — then the fungus accounts for nearly 80% of the metabolism in the Mound.

The Fungus lives and grows in its labyrinthine cells. The walls of its chamber wiggle in and out like a brain, creating that much more surface area for it to grow on.

It sits there while its white workers mill around, bringing in food and drink and keeping it well watered.

These workers are totally domesticated now. They know how to build shelters for their master, shaping walls and building the fungus-comb exactly the way the Fungus likes it. They can even function as a private army, chasing away any foreign intruders who to break in.

Other workers live on their own, sometimes being set to work by smaller groups of people. Those wild workers get on quite well on their own. The Fungus, however, has a species that was domesticated about 25 million years ago. They are completely dependent on their fungal master to keep them alive, even as the Fungus has grown dependent on them.

And all they ask for is a little food in return.

Who owns the Mound?

Is it the Queen, with servants doing all the work and letting her focus on her evolutionary drive to pass on her genes? Or the White Workers, who are after all running the show and simply using tools like the digestor and egg-layer to keep them going?

Perhaps it’s the Colony as a whole, the giant crawling brain making decisions that its constituent parts don’t fully understand? And what about he Fungus, that gets most done with least work, and which some suspect may be silently issuing chemical orders from behind?

Naturalist Eugène Marais, who spent many years of his life studying Mounds like this one, has a different description. He likes to imagine the Mound as a “composite animal”, a sort of clay being that will evolve over time to move on its way slowly across the veldt.

In that case, the real question would be: whom does the Mound own?

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