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Termites could point the way to mineral depos -

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ELEANOR HALL: Now to our story about the potential for a new termite driven gold rush.

Australia's premier scientific research body, the CSIRO, has found that termite mounds could indicate where gold or other mineral deposits lie beneath the surface.

Even small termite mounds could be reliable markers, and Timothy McDonald reports that the termites themselves may be a cost effective and environmentally friendly means of finding new mineral deposits.

TIMOTHY MCDONALD: Across Australia's north, you'll find huge numbers of termite mounds, and the largest will be up to five metres tall. Termites are truly the master architects of the insect world.

CSIRO entomologist Dr Aaron Stewart says there's a very good reason they build the mounds.

AARON STEWART: Termites need protection from the elements. They're quite perceptible to desiccation; they'll dry out very easily. So what they need to do is create a home which retains the humidity.

So they need that and they also protection against their enemies because there's lot of things that make a tasty meal of a termite.

TIMOTHY MCDONALD: Dr Aaron Stewart says that in order to build their homes, they bring up dirt from below the surface.

AARON STEWART: When it builds its mound, it's collecting material from different places, collecting fine, silty clays from the surface and other building materials. It's also excavating soil from underneath, in which to house its nest.

So it's really about how they go down and collect materials and put them in their nest and to our advantage, those materials are what we're looking for.

TIMOTHY MCDONALD: Termites can dig as far down as thirty metres, but when they're building, most of the dirt will come from just a few metres down.

At that level there's often a sort of fingerprint, or residue that points to more substantial mineral deposits further below. And once that soil ends up in the termite mound, geologists and entomologists can have a closer look.

But Dr Stewart says any minerals certainly wouldn't be apparent to the naked eye.

AARON STEWART: You definitely need specialised equipment. What we have to do is take the soil away and have it analysed by a laboratory, which will do some mass spectrometry and find the gold that way. We're talking about very low levels, we're talking parts of a billion of gold.

TIMOTHY MCDONALD: Dr Aaron Stewart says looking at termite mounds isn't a new idea, but it until now, any attempt to detect mineral wealth has focused on the largest mounds, usually found in the Northern Territory. He says a smaller mound will do just as well.

AARON STEWART: The insects that I'm looking at occupy a vast area of central Australia, so we're talking about down into quite southern latitudes, so we're talking about animals right across Australia, not just the big termite mounds that are in the north.

TIMOTHY MCDONALD: Mineral exploration in Australia can be expensive because resources tend to be well below the surface, and drilling is required to find out what's there.

Dr Stewart says termites could provide an alternative.

AARON STEWART: There is quite a history of people looking at termite mounds to find gold. In fact in Africa, some mounds have enough gold in them that people are panning them to get the gold out. So the idea has sort of been around, it's really about how we apply it to the Australian landscape.

We've got this problem in Australia of having a cap or a layer of earth covering our resources, and so we can't see through that and it's about using these termites to breach that cap.

TIMOTHY MCDONALD: So the termite mounds are somewhat of a looking glass into what's below that cap?

AARON STEWART: Yeah that's right. In the past we've used these quite large nests in the Northern Territory and they're obvious because they're so big that a geologist comes along and says, hey look, that soil has to come from somewhere, perhaps it's from down deep.

What I've done is to research some small amounts through central Western Australia and to realise that these are able to bring up enough material to see the resource underneath.

TIMOTHY MCDONALD: And does it apply only to gold or can you find possibly other valuable resources as well?

AARON STEWART: So far I've really had the most success looking at gold, but certainly we're researching into other resources as well, for example VMS, which is volcanic massive sulphide deposits, which will have zinc and other resources in them.

But that research is really in development.

ELEANOR HALL: The CSIRO's Dr Aaron Stewart speaking to Tim McDonald.