They do not sting or bite, nor do they cause allergies, but termites, termites, turiros, white ants or termites, as they are known in latitudes with tropical climates, can knock down trees, houses and even buildings. Artificial intelligence would be a great ally to design pest control strategies. At the Tumaco campus of the National University of Colombia (UNAL) they have a proposal.
Despite being considered a pest of economic importance due to the million-dollar losses they cause in forests (eucalyptus and acacias) and crops (coffee, fruit trees, sugar cane or palms), termites feed on fallen leaves and dead wood, protecting the soil nutrients and regulating humidity, which is essential to maintain the balance of tropical ecosystems such as Colombia.
To contribute to the knowledge about the behavior of the populations of this social insect that builds nests or termite mounds, and taking advantage of the benefits of artificial intelligence, UNAL investigates the termite-tree relationship on the campus of the Tumaco Headquarters.
This will make it possible to predict where termites will be in the future, which will facilitate the design of strategies or environmental management plans in places where these insects are pests and can cause economic losses.
Professor Felipe Benavides and five student-researchers from UNAL Sede Tumaco lead this initiative, with which they try to answer four questions: which trees do termites of the genus prefer? Nasutitermes to build their nests? What species and what morphological characteristics do your preferred trees have and where are they located? What habitat conditions do they prefer? And which trees are most likely to be infested in the future?
Of the genre Nasutitermes –or cone head termites– 13 species are known, which is why it is considered one of the most abundant. Their specially built nests in trees are brown to black in color and are made of a type of cardboard that they make by chewing the wood and mixing it with excrement.
Algorithms and termites
To answer the questions, the following were combined: sampling and measurement of variables in the field, geographic information systems, analysis and interpretation of satellite images, application of predictive artificial intelligence algorithms (such as Gradient Boosting) and cluster analysis. The work had the participation of Professor Olga Patricia Pinzón, an expert in termites from the Francisco José de Caldas District University.
“Of the 13 tree species present on the Tumaco Campus, termites are especially associated with two: the yarumo and the balso, due to their morphological conditions: they are relatively soft woods, which facilitate their ingestion and digestion, They also have wide trunks, which allows them to build large and stable nests, and they are located in spaces that offer them a greater diversity of ground cover,” says Professor Benavides.
He adds that “thanks to a window of time, the algorithms allowed us to predict -with different levels of probability- which will be the infested trees in one or two years.”
The professor, who is also a postdoctoral researcher at the Instituto de Estudios del Pacífico at UNAL Tumaco Headquarters, and is currently directing the ecology and biostatistics subjects, highlights that the project began two months ago.
“With the students we decided to apply the project-based learning methodology, a strategy in which they study in a real context, through the formulation and execution of a research project, the results of which will be published in a specialized scientific journal.”
“Without a doubt, the work done so far motivates students to research and teamwork.”
The student Lisbeth Echeverry de la Cruz, a Chemical Engineer from the Tumaco Campus, who is part of the project, mentions that “the methodology used by Professor Benavidez helped us delve into ecology issues, answer our own questions, and with these new knowledge to contribute to the community and transform the territory”.
For her part, Liseth Lara, support professional of the Environmental Management System of the Tumaco Headquarters, states that “this system is immersed in the environmental policy of UNAL, for which it is essential to protect the natural environment through environmental programs and interaction with the university community; therefore, this contribution will be very valuable in the consolidation of an environmental culture”.