Centennial Museum gecko logo

Desert Diary

Arthropods/Psychic Termites


This page was designed with CSS, and looks best in a CSS-aware browser—which, unfortunately, yours is not. However, the document should still be readable, though not presented in the most sophisticated manner.

So-called psychics tend to be big on vibrations as part of their pseudoscientific spiels. Real science, though, often does study vibrations of one type or another. Those set off by earthquakes tell us much about the interior of the earth, and what is sound other than vibrations of air? Even light can be visualized as vibrations, and now we're learning that termites may be getting into the act.

Some species of termites are very particular about the size of the wooden objects that they feed on. But how does a termite tell the size of a piece of wood? Researchers looked at a species of blind termites that certainly can't judge size by sight and, furthermore, seemed to be able to tell if the food was of suitable size without roaming over it. Since the resonation frequency of a piece of wood is related to its size, the researchers wondered if vibrations were being used. Sure enough, recorded vibrations caused by feeding termites would, when played back, induce the termites to feed on inappropriate-sized wood—no psychics needed!

Listen to the audio

pen and ink


Contributor: Arthur H. Harris, Laboratory for Environmental Biology, Centennial Museum, University of Texas at El Paso.

Desert Diary is a production of KTEP, National Public Radio at the University of Texas at El Paso.



Howlett, R. 2005. Meals sized up. Nature 434:154.